Is the All-star really the All Star Game?
One of the greatest weeks of my childhood was the week of July 10, 2001 when the Major League Baseball All-Star Game was played in my hometown of Seattle. Everyday leading up to the game, I stood in line at the Fan Fest and got autographs from various legends including Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Brooks Robinson, Robin Roberts, Harmon Killebrew, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and the list goes on and on.
Then finally, I got to watch in person the mid-summer classic that I had watched on television every year. What a day; I sat in the left field bleachers and watched as military jets flew overhead, fireworks burst into the sky, Derek Jeter hit a home run, and of course, right beneath me, Cal Ripken Jr. launched his iconic shot the year that he was retiring to seal not just a victory for the American League, but the game’s MVP Award, a signature on the final chapter of his legendary career.
However, the best part of the day was seeing the players that I will tell my grandchildren about, standing on one field together: Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Ichiro, Cal Ripken, A-Rod, Edgar Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Randy Johnson, Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Larry Walker were all among the starters. Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Derek Jeter and Roberto Alomar also made the teams.
I thought back to photos I had seen from players who have mostly died, yet in the baseball world are immortal: Ted Williams being congratulated by Joe DiMaggio as he crossed home plate, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron with their arms around each other in the locker room, or Jimmie Foxx standing alongside Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Not everyone, of course, who plays in the All-Star Game is a legend.
I think of one Seattle Mariners player, who my family knew well, who made one All-Star appearance in his career during an outstanding year he had. In that game, he had one plate appearance and struck out. However, for the rest of his life, he got to say that he was an All-Star, and when I went to his home, there was nothing baseball-related in his entire house except for a framed picture of him in that one at bat in the All-Star Game.
The All-Star Game provides these moments where truly the best and most deserving players get a chance to play together, much to the delight of the fans… or that is what it should be.
There was a specific moment in the 2006 All-Star Game that caught my attention and changed my affection towards the All-Star Game, and that was the selection of Mark Redman to the American League Roster. Though Mark Redman had won five consecutive outings for the Kansas City Royals that June, Redman had gotten off to a horrific start to the season, losing his first four starts. At the All-Star break, the Kansas City starter had a record of 6-4 with a 5.27 ERA and only 32 strikeouts.
When the season ended, Redman led his team with a measly 11 wins and had a 5.71 ERA. In a game that is an honor to be selected to and is supposed to highlight the best of the best, how was it that Mark Redman, whose ERA would make him the worst pitcher on certain squads, was an All-Star?
The answer is that Major League Baseball has a rule that every team must be represented by at least one player at the All-Star Game, and, in short, Redman was the best player on one of the worst teams in the league. In the 2006 season, the Kansas City Royals finished with a record of 62-100 (.383), finishing in last place in their division (only the 61-101 Rays were worse in the league) and 34 games back of first place.
Mark Redman is sadly not an anomaly; others who were not deserving of being All-Stars have also been selected to the game. Another example that demonstrates my frustration was the lone representative of the 2003 Pittsburgh Pirates, Mike Williams. Williams was the closer for the Pirates and posted 25 saves out of the Pirates’ 41 wins in the first half of the season, which in itself, sounds fairly impressive.
However, Mike Williams’s ERA at the All-Star break was a staggering 6.44 (yes, you read that correctly, that is not a typo). How can a player with an ERA that would get him demoted to the minors or designated for assignment on a good team, be named an All-Star? Or perhaps, the question should be, how can we call this the All-Star game with a player that has spent the first half of the season struggling mightily?
The reason for this rule makes sense on a couple of levels. For one, it makes for good marketing if everyone can see one of their own in the All-Star game. Understandably, some fans would not want to tune into the game if they cannot watch and cheer on one of their own players. Secondly, the rule prevents teams loaded with talent and huge fan bases (and thus, big voting bases) from having only a few teams represented in the All-Star Game.
However, as a result of every team having a representative, even when their team does not deserve to have one, this inevitably means that every year there are deserving players who do not make an All-Star team. As one fan told me, “Big deal? The All-Star Game does not count anyways, so who cares?” The truth is that the All-Star Game actually is a big deal.
On the most basic level, think back to that one player I referenced who has the picture in his home of him batting in the All-Star Game. It does matter to many players. Secondly, it also matters in terms of a player’s contract. If a player was an All-Star in his final season prior to free agency, he can expect to receive more lucrative offers. Many players also have incentives in their contracts for pay bonuses should they receive All-Star selections. Finally, it matters as well to many writers when a player comes up for a Hall of Fame vote.
One of the factors that many writers consider is how many All-Star teams a player made in his career. For example, Ozzie Smith was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, receiving 91.7% of votes. Smith’s entry into the Hall of Fame was due to his 13 Gold Gloves, certainly not his .262 career batting average or 28 career home runs. However, Smith also made 15 All-Star teams.
Other players with many Gold Gloves like Torii Hunter (9 Gold Gloves, 5 All-Star teams, 9.5% first ballot vote), Andruw Jones (10 consecutive Gold Gloves, 5-time All-Star, currently on 4th ballot), and Jim Kaat (16 Gold Gloves, 3 All-Star teams, never elected to Hall of Fame), are not in Cooperstown despite fielding dominance, but far fewer All-Star appearances.
Likewise, Bert Blyleven finished his career with a 3.45 ERA and 3,701 strikeouts, the third most in history at the time of his retirement and was not elected to the Hall of Fame until his 14th appearance on the ballot. I have a strong suspicion that the reason for this was that he made only two All-Star teams. They may have left Blyleven off of some teams for a less deserving player?
Though the pitchers and reservists are picked by the managers, it is of course the fans who get to pick the starters, and this as well poses problems. When going to my beloved Seattle Mariners’ website, the team was encouraging me to “Vote for J.P. Crawford, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager for the All-Star Game!”. At the time, Seager was batting a disappointing .213, fighting mightily to stay above the Mendoza Line. Yet, I am sure, that there are people who voted for him solely because he was on their favorite team.
With teams that have much larger fan bases, like the Dodgers and Yankees, this gives players who may not be deserving additional votes. In looking at the 2001 Seattle Mariners (who were an outstanding team, winning a record 116 games), the voting was disproportionately in favor of the Mariners. Four Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki (outfield), Bret Boone (second base), John Olerud (first base) and Edgar Martinez (designated hitter) were all voted as starters, while Dan Wilson (catcher) and David Bell (third base) came in second place in the voting, Carlos Guillen (shortstop) came in third, and outfielders Mike Cameron and Al Martin placed fourth and eighth in the league voting.
Ichiro received the most votes of any player in the Major League with over 3.3 million. Why did the Mariners do so well? With Ichiro’s large fan base during his MVP and Rookie of the Year season, fans in Japan flooded the internet to vote for him and then voted for every player that had “Seattle” listed next to his name.
With the Japanese vote, David Bell was leading third basemen going into the final days of voting, sparking outrage from fans who wanted to see the retiring Cal Ripken start the All-Star Game. Fans came out in force and were able to vote Ripken in for the game. However, Ripken’s entry epitomizes another problem with the fan voting. In many years we see fans vote for the “fan favorite” or a player who in the past has been good.
There have been times that a leader in the voting has been a player who has largely struggled or who has been injured for most of the season. An example of this was in 2004, when Jason Giambi was voted by the fans as the starting first baseman in the American League, despite being injured and playing only 80 games that season and having a .208 batting average and hitting a mere 12 home runs.
Back to Cal Ripken, though he hit a home run and won the MVP of the 2001 All-Star Game, he went into the game batting only .241 with 4 home runs. Though seeing Ripken start his final All-Star Game was sentimental for all fans and perhaps good for the game, it meant that more deserving players missed out on the opportunity.
In order to make the All-Star Game truly fitting of its name and a deserving honor, the game needs to be revisited in how players are selected to the game.
Updates to the All-Star Game have been made over the past couple of decades including inning limits, making the game count for World Series home-field advantage and then taking that away, and adding a fan vote for a 26th man on the roster of a player who was maybe overlooked.
Likewise, perhaps certain changes are necessary, such as getting rid of the rule that every team must be represented and having selections be voting where players and managers count for a third of the vote, fans count for a third of the vote, and writers count for a third of the vote.
That proposal may or may not be the right solution, however, for the Mid-Summer Classic to maintain its integrity, changes must be made.