By Elizabeth Finn
As American as apple pie and as predictable as the weather in San Diego, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game ushers in the dog days of summer and fosters the oddly symbiotic relationship between division rivals that only the sweet promise of league bragging rights can create. But with this charming celebration of baseball talent comes the yearly All-Star debate, and the possibility that, perhaps, a mockery is being made of one of baseball’s most famous traditions.
The biggest controversy, and the one that will probably never be laid to rest, concerns the selection process. Currently, All-Star participants are picked in a three-tier process. The fan vote, which is the sole determination of the game’s starters, and compiled primarily of internet submissions; the players’ ballot, a peer vote that picks most of the pitching staff and one level of reserves; and the managers’ decision, that fills in the gaps and ensures a representative from each major league team.
The component that upsets many baseball purists is the fan voting. A system that promotes ballot-stuffing–Major League Baseball encourages multiple votes per day (to increase their website traffic, no doubt)–and favors large-market teams and commercially-viable superstars, the fan selection process has historically led to some high-profile superstars earning starting spots over their more deserving counterparts. For a league that is seeing more parity than ever before, in the fruition of savvy draft choices and the emphasis on pitching and small ball, perhaps their salute to the fans–the reason they’re setting attendance records year after year–may have some catching up to do.
Over the past five years, there have been some good examples of the knee-jerk big name voting deluge. In 2005, the big-market Mets’ outfielder Carlos Beltran started in left field for the National League squad. With his .266/.321/.434 first half stats, Beltran wasn’t even in the top 20 outfield producers in his league. One of history’s best offensive catchers and an absolute superstar, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez earned his twelfth starting trip to the All-Star game in 2007, representing the American League. He brought with him to San Francisco an OPS 150 points lower than Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, who snagged a players’ ballot spot that year. And, in 2008, in what was optimistically an honor bestowed on the Captain in his stadium’s final season, Derek Jeter scored the starting shortstop position at the ballpark in the Bronx, despite one of the least productive first halves in his long career.
All-Star voting controversy is not a 21st-century phenomenon, however. In 1957, only ten years after fan voting was instated, baseball faced the first and largest voting scam it has ever seen, when ballot-stuffing of questionable legality in Cincinnati led to seven Reds being elected to starting positions. The scandal was also incredibly effective at exposing weaknesses in the selection system, and creating change. After Commissioner Ford Frick was forced to replace several Cincinnati All-Stars with players from other teams, Major League Baseball changed its selection process, decreeing that all participants were to be picked by managers, coaches, and their peers. This policy stood until 1970.
Unfortunately, the advent of the internet, and the capabilities therein, have led to even bigger voting problems–and some of them are intentional. With the ability to vote up to 25 times per “account” (really, any distinct personal information) per day, any organized campaign can shake up results. Notably, an anecdotally-calculated strategy has kept Manny Ramirez, who is serving a 50-game suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy, in the top six in National League outfield voting since ballots opened in May. Apparently designed as a backlash against what is now seen by many as stringent and hypocritical punishment for using an illegal substance–a “too little too late” reaction by a commissioner who reveled in the home run chase and its revenue only to appear scandalized at the reason for the displays of power–the movement has fizzled in recent weeks. Its impact was nonetheless impressive, however, and once again raised many questions about the current voting structure.
In a similar fan demonstration, designed to make a mockery of the populist selection process, a group of fans, in lore originating from a Boston Red Sox fan forum, organized a campaign to elect AAA outfielder Lastings Milledge, a former major leaguer currently rehabbing a broken finger for the Washington Nationals’ farm team. Because All-Star ballots are determined by each manager during spring training by selecting his probable starting lineup, injured, demoted, and slumping players can potentially sit on a team’s ballot throughout the voting period. This leaves room for schemes like the one cooked up by some mischievous Red Sox fans, whose motivation beyond making a joke of the process is not entirely clear, but has been speculated to be an attempt to weaken the National League team as much as possible.
Though the selection process, and the flaws involved in allowing a technologically-savvy generation so much control, have stirred up an already debatable issue, there is another, more civil debate emerging, that stems to a problem created by baseball itself.
The All-Star game was created as a showcase of talent and an opportunity for fans to watch the best-of-the-best collaborate in what is hopefully the best-played game of the year. But it is also a celebration of the game itself, and a salute to the fans. In an attempt at inclusiveness, so that fans from even the smallest-market ballclub enjoy watching the game, MLB instituted a rule that every team must send a player to the All-Star Game. This caveat to the process has supporters, who enjoy the fact that it makes the game a fully-representative affair. However, baseball purists argue that this stipulation creates weaker teams than if managers and coaches were allowed to choose based solely on talent. In a sense, they contend, this makes it not a true “All-Star” game.
The argument left the realm of the hypothetical in 2003, when commissioner Bud Selig, frustrated with fans’ waning interest in the game amid steroid speculation and hoping to add a new level of intensity to an otherwise exhibition game, proclaimed that the winner of the All-Star Game would be awarded home field advantage in the World Series. Though sparking some ire from both players and fans–but winning favor with manager Tony LaRussa–for various reasons (one being the risk of injury) the announcement ramped up the controversy surrounding the full representation policy. If the game were, in fact, to have an effect on the Fall Classic–and home field advantage is no myth–then reason would dictate that both teams should field the best players available to them. In a close game creeping toward late innings, should a manager bend to the pressure of playing everyone on his bench or play to win? And if he does intend to play for home field advantage, is there any point to appointing a representative from every team?
In a full-scale mirror to the baseball season itself, baseball history goes through ebbs and flows, and it learns from each era how best to keep the players, the coaches, and the fans happy and the integrity of the game intact. However, if baseball doesn’t take steps to address the arising issues very clearly being brought to its attention by the fans–remember them?–then it will run the risk of turning one of the most joyful points of a long and intense season into a full-blown joke.