COLUMN: MLB All-Star Game isn’t what it once was

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The problem with the All-Star Game isn’t that the rosters are too big, to the point that dugouts have the feel of a crowded supermarket. And the problem with the All-Star Game isn’t that a player from every team has to be selected, so that middle relievers from bad teams stand next to millionaire sluggers from good ones.

The problem with the All-Star Game isn’t that fans pick the starters, either, even as a good player who missed more than a month (Pablo Sandoval) is in ahead of a great one who is an MVP favorite (David Wright).

I know what some of you are thinking, but the problem with the All-Star Game isn’t even that baseball is the only sport to potentially decide its championship on an exhibition, so that players who would rather be in Tahoe are bribed into a representative effort here by the This-Time-It-Counts carrot that many of the sport’s lifers privately grumble about.

Nope.

The problem with the All-Star Game is all of this being true. Baseball had a round-hole problem and tried to fix it with a square peg. We are now 10 years into one of the most awkward mismatches in sports – like flip-flops and swim trunks on the bottom with a suit jacket and tie on top.

The All-Star Game is either a showcase that helps decide history or it’s game one of the World Series going to the American League in large part because players from the third-place team in the NL East committed four errors (which happened in 2008).

These are hard things to reconcile.

“I don’t think it’s a disconnect,” commissioner Bud Selig says. “Look at the intensity this game’s been played with since we went to ‘This Time It Counts.’ Players stay, players care _ we energized the game.

“I hear people say, ‘There’s a better system.’ Well, no there’s not. We didn’t have a better system.”

The commissioner’s side to this is worth considering. He was in a tough spot. The NBA hasn’t changed its All-Star Game and you see guys, literally, getting out of the way on defense. The NHL All-Star Game carries only a vague similarity to real hockey. And don’t even get started on the NFL’s Pro Bowl.

Gathering dozens of multimillionaire athletes, each of whom is or is aspiring to be his own brand, into one cohesive and competitive game has enormous challenges. There are fundamental obstacles that other leagues haven’t solved.

Baseball was once going that route. Remember 2002? That’s when Barry Bonds playfully bear-hugged Torii Hunter after being robbed of a home run and the game ended in a tie because both teams ran out of pitchers.

Selig, without a solution, throwing his hands up in defeat, is the defining image of that game for many fans.

So, with motivations both pure (make the game more competitive) and greedy (TV rights fees), Selig used his power to tie home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner of the All-Star Game.

In theory, it’s a fine idea. Nobody can deny the game is more competitive. The 2008 game went 15 innings, leaving players who’d already been subbed out to stand on the top steps of the dugout until Justin Morneau scored on a sacrifice fly 4 hours and 50 minutes after the first pitch.

We won’t ever get back to the intangible pride that each side played with in the old days, when there was no interleague scheduling and the scarcity of nationally televised games meant the All-Star Game was the only chance for much of the country to see the best players.

This Time It Counts retrieves some of the passion in the All-Star Game, because at least a few players on each side may have their greatest baseball moment shaped by what happens this week.

It’s just that what Selig has done creates other problems – awkward problems.

Interleague records would be a much more logical way to decide home-field advantage in the World Series, but if you want to make the All-Star Game count, fine. Just tell managers that the best players should play.

Pitchers shouldn’t be worn out, but last year Matthew Joyce replaced Josh Hamilton. Howie Kendrick came in for Robinson Cano. Carlos Beltran was the National League’s starting DH, a position eventually manned by Gaby Sanchez. Prince Fielder hit a three-run homer, then came out of the game.

How does this make sense for a contest that potentially decides history?

Or, another question: What will be the reaction if the guy who makes the game-turning play on Tuesday gets traded to the other league later this month?

It’s a bizarre place for baseball to draw its line. One problem is solved while creating another.

And what should be the chance to watch the best and most famous baseball players in the world turns into one more exposure the sport has for bigger problems and increased criticism.

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