Home-field matters

Home-field matters

PITTSBURGH -- Last year's Fall Classic won't be lost on Phil Garner when he manages the National League in next month's Midsummer Classic.

His Astros were swept by Chicago, but Garner knows the complexion of the World Series may have shifted had it not opened in the frigid Windy City.

Houston carried the league's best home record (57-29) into the Series and had won four of their first five playoff games at Minute Maid Park. Their record on the road was a slightly less flattering nine games under .500.

"I know home-field would have been an advantage for us last year," Garner said.

And because their fate was decided by the American League's victory some three months earlier in the All-Star Game, he will treat the July 11 game in Pittsburgh like any other.

"We will play to win," he said. "Because no matter who's in the World Series, and you hope it's us, it's important."

Winning still isn't the only thing in the game's annual showcase of stars. But now that the stakes have been raised above bragging rights, and home-field advantage in the World Series is on the line, managers have to walk a fine line between the "just win, baby" and "just get everybody in the game" approaches to the Midsummer Classic.

The pressure may be particularly felt in the National League, which has dropped eight of the last nine games and given away the rights to a possible deciding seventh game at home in all three instances since baseball began rewarding the game's winner with the end-season advantage.

Not important? Think home-field advantage in baseball is an oxymoron? Well, take a look at the numbers.

In 20 of the last 25 World Series, the team that opened at home has taken the title.

"It's nice because now people believe we play for something," said the White Sox manager and Garner's counterpart come July 11. "It shows people the game means something. It means more than an exhibition game."

He's referring to the late 20th century, when the game began to take on a ceremonial feel and second billing to the surrounding pomp and festivities. The fierce rivalry between the leagues was no longer there. The rivalry that saw National League manager Billy Southworth tossed over a disputed call in 1944. The rivalry that saw American League president Lee MacPhail command his players to "take the game more seriously" in the days leading up to the 1959 game after the Junior Circuit had fallen short in 10 of the past 11 seasons. The rivalry that left us with the indelible image of Pete Rose violently running over Ray Fosse on a play at the plate in 1970.

When the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee ended controversially in a tie, baseball decided a change was necessary to make the game matter again.

Even this new prize, though, is balanced against powerful competing pressures -- from fans who want to see their hometown favorites, from players who view the game more as a celebration than a do-or-die contest and from managers who don't want to make enemies by keeping players on the bench.

So what exactly has been the impact of the change? Are the players consciously playing to give their league brethren a better shot in October? Many former All-Stars say no, indicating there is no shift in their approaches.

"I don't think so. It's more of just a fan thing," Pirates first baseman Sean Casey said. "You know that it's definitely something that matters, but hey, you want to enjoy making the game. Instead of having off days, you're at the All-Star Game and that's awesome, but you want to enjoy it, not stress out about it."

"That's all image. That's what the fans and the league comes up with," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "[Home-field] has nothing to do with it. People go there for the honor of going to the All-Star Game. It's kind of like a vacation and fun time for the players."

"You just want to win to win," Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez said. "All of that other stuff is played up for TV."

"Still played like any other game," Pittsburgh left fielder Jason Bay said.

And many point to the unjustness of the rule. The advantage should be decided over a six-month season, not on one night by players whose teams' fates have long been decided, they say.

"Mr. Selig has a plan and it's seemed to work out, but if you have the best record, that's where the World Series should begin," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

"If that doesn't earn you home-field advantage, nothing does," Casey said.

Then there's the tricky issue of playing time that inevitably arises when a reward hinges on the game's outcome. If a manager is playing strictly to win, they must hold back players in case the game goes to extra innings. It's a necessity, said Arizona manager Bob Melvin, to "create the better matchups late in the game."

This leaves players like Bay last year waiting for a call that never comes.

"If you are trying to win it for home-field advantage, you have to hold [at least] two players back," Garner said. "You have to have something there and that's unfortunate."

October advantage or not, others believe it should be required that all players see the field.

Garner and Guillen? Not exactly.

"Even when I play Nintendo against my kids, I want to win," he said. "I like to compete. I like to be on top. That win will be in the books for the rest of my life. You win, you lose. That number is going to be there on my page."

David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.