Is it too early to start grousing about the All-Star Game coming up in 3 ½ weeks?
Oh, it’s never too early to start grousing.
Especially about the All-Star Game, which is nothing more than a mistake wrapped in an error inside a blunder. (My apologies as I happily paraphrase Winston Churchill, who once said that Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma … With an American mother and a British father, come to think of it, what did Lord Winston know about baseball anyway?)
Except even Churchill would know this of America’s Pastime: It’s folly for baseball to let its most important moment all season — Game 7 of the World Series — be decided by its most inconsequential: The All-Star Game.
Yes, a game played by mostly disinterested millionaires July 12 in San Diego, many of them playing alongside men they may actively dislike or disregard the rest of the year, will decide whether the National League or American League champion gets home-field advantage in the Fall Classic.
Right, wrong, or otherwise, that’s how baseball has decided home field advantage in the Fall Classic since 2003.
A game played by mostly disinterested millionaires July 12 in San Diego, many of them playing alongside men they may actively dislike or disregard the rest of the year, will decide whether the National League or American League champion gets home-field advantage in the World Series.
Even the old every-other-year rotation is better than the All-Star Game solution. Best of all: Now that we have interleague play every day of the season, why not base home-field advantage on the outcome of the NL vs. AL head-to-head meetings by year’s end? For the record, as of Thursday, the AL leads this year’s interleague play, with 56 wins to 52 for the NL.
Wouldn’t that head-to-head matchup keep us watching to the very end of the regular season, with all the playoff teams and their fans waiting to find out who will get an extra game at home in the Fall Classic? At least the outcome would be based on real games played between real teams, instead of a made-for-TV, every-team-gets-an-All-Star vanity exercise.
Anything is better than the current setup, which plays far too large a role in deciding the sport’s champion each season.
Why did the St. Louis Cardinals get home-field advantage in the 2011 World Series — winning Game 6 and 7 at Busch Stadium, after the team fell behind the Texas Rangers three games to two on the road? Because three months earlier Prince Fielder (then of the Milwaukee Brewers), hit a three-run homer in the fourth inning of a game won 5-1 by the NL stars.
Irony of ironies as you reach the logical conclusion: One of the biggest factors in the Cardinals’ 11th World Series triumph was an exhibition home run by a player employed by one of their toughest division rivals, a team that spent the rest of the season trying to keep the Redbirds from making the playoffs.
I ask you: Would that Series have played out differently if the Cardinals didn’t have a chance in Game 6 to take their at-bats in the bottom half in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings (scoring six runs total in those four innings, in a game they won 10-9)? Wonder how differently we might remember David Freese and Lance Berkman and Nelson Cruz if that game had been played in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, instead of at Busch?
How did the Cardinals get home-field advantage in the 2011 World Series? Because of a three-run homer by Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder three months earlier.
No bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out, two-strike, game-tying two-run triple by Freese, sailing beyond Cruz in right field. No bottom of the 10th, two-out, two-strike, game-tying single by Berkman. No 11th inning, game-winning, helmet-slamming homer by Freese.
But I digress, to summon a term you don’t hear much in the dugout.
Fussing about the impact of the game can come later (and will). Fussing about the pending makeup of the team can come now.
I know the All-Star Game is a popularity contest, populated by the cutest kids in the class, the prom king and queen, and the all-state quarterback and his captain-of-the-cheerleading-squad girlfriend.
But do we really want to see five Chicago Cubs in the starting lineup on July 12? Yes, the entire infield of the Cubs — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, second baseman Ben Zobrist, third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell — are atop the latest vote totals released by Major League Baseball on Wednesday.
Oh, and let’s not forget the Baby Bears’ Dexter Fowler, who leads the outfield balloting.
No doubt the Cubs — with the best record in baseball — ought to be well-represented on the National League squad. But I’m not sure there ought to be five Cubs-blue hats in the starting lineup.
After all, Russell — hitting .237 with five home runs and 34 RBIs — has nearly 300,000 more votes than Colorado’s Trevor Story, who is hitting .268 with 17 homers and 45 RBIs. The St. Louis Cardinals rookie sensation, Aledmys Diaz? Hitting .312 with eight homers and 32 RBIs, and not even on the All-Star ballot.
The entire Cubs infield — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, second baseman Ben Zobrist, third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell — lead the NL balloting this year. As does outfielder Dexter Fowler.
By many measures, Bryant isn’t the best third baseman, either. At .273 with 15 homers and 45 RBIs, he doesn’t match up to the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, who is hitting .290 with a league-leading 20 homers and 57 RBIs. And yet Bryant has nearly a half-million more votes than Arenado.
More egregious than the top-of-the-ballot leaders? The march-in-lock-step support from the Wrigley citizenry for Jason Heyward, he of the .234 batting average, four home runs and 24 RBIs in 222 at-bats. Are there really 993,073 fans out there who think that merits inclusion on the All-Star Team?
Of course they don’t think that. If they did, how to explain that Heyward has nearly as many votes as the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, leading the voting at catcher with 933,300 votes — only 227 votes more than Heyward is getting in a crowded outfield competition? Molina, an eight-time time Gold Glove winner and seven-time All-Star, is hitting .278 with a home run and 23 RBIS in his first full season back after a tough wrist injury last year.
As for the outfield vote, don’t even get me started. Fowler leads the outfielders with 1,611,833 votes — second only to Rizzo in the overall balloting — with a .291 average, seven homers and 28 RBIs. Washington’s Bryce Harper, some 150,000 votes behind Fowler, twice as many homers (14) and 13 more RBIs (41) than Fowler. Another 60,000 votes back: The New York Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, at .286 with 16 homers and 41 RBIs.
And way, way, way back in 11th spot, with only 424,264 votes, sits the Cardinals’ Stephen Piscotty, with a .303 batting mark, seven homers and 35 RBIs. Better batting mark than Fowler, as many home runs, and more RBIs — and one-fourth as many All-Star votes.
Stephen Piscotty is 11 spots behind Dexter Fowler in the NL outfield vote, though the Cardinal slugger has a better batting average, as many home runs and more RBIs than his Cubs counterpart.
Who’s to blame? In Piscotty’s instance, I suppose, Cardinals fans, who have failed to stuff the ballot box for their guy.
Which is the issue: All-Star Game voters always make like they’re voting to please a Chicago ward boss instead of helping decide the best nine players to win the game for their league.
If that happened — and the game featured the best players earnestly striving to win for their side — you could almost concede the game’s outcome ought to influence the World Series.
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about baseball for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at: 618-239-2512, @JoeOstermeier