The All-Star Game is still an obviously special event. It is the Midsummer Classic, after all. It has been a part of the baseball calendar for nearly eight decades. Look at the intensity of the arguments it produces just as a function of choosing the two rosters. But it isn't quite as unique as it used to be.
You youngsters in the crowd will have to take this on faith, but there was a time when the two leagues, National and American, met just twice a year. Once was in the World Series, when the two best teams met. The other time was the All-Star Game, when the best players from each league competed to determine which league's stars made up the better team. It was an event that generated real anticipation and fierce debate.
But that was back in the Middle Ages, or at least before 1997. Now, teams from the two leagues meet regularly in what we like to call Interleague Play. This has been such a huge hit that even now, 15 years after its inception, Interleague games still draw an average attendance about 12 percent greater than conventional regular-season games.
Interleague Play has been, by any reasonable measurement, a howling success. But it has subtracted some of the uniqueness from what was the one big Midsummer Classic of an Interleague meeting, the All-Star Game.
So to put back a little more sizzle in the All-Star Game, Major League Baseball went to this format in which the winning league grabs the World Series home-field advantage. It is not possible to call this idea either a success or a failure. But it is relatively sensible to say that there are far more equitable ways to settle a matter of this importance, such as where most of the games will be played when the championship of the entire sport is determined.
Baseball officials have typically argued that last-minute logistics prevent simply awarding World Series home-field advantage to the team that has the better regular-season record. OK. Then let's give the Series' home-field advantage to the league that won that season's overall Interleague series. For the last nine years that would have been the American League, but those are the breaks. It's a bigger and better sample size than one exhibition game in July.
Has the All-Star motivation been jacked up by making the game determine Series home-field advantage? That's a highly subjective call. But on the "no" side is Jim Leyland, manager of the Detroit Tigers. He is in a position to know. Leyland has managed teams from both leagues in All-Star Games, and he has managed one All-Star Game when the game decided the Series home-field advantage and one when it did not.
"I wish it didn't matter," Leyland said. "I wish it was just a spectacle for the fans.
"I'm sure Bud will be mad at me," Leyland said, referring to Commissioner Bud Selig, "but if you want to be honest about it, the players all want to win. But I don't think making the game mean something has made the players go, 'We've got to win this thing.' I don't think it's been that big of a motivational tool."
When Leyland was asked if he would favor a return to the simple days of yore when the leagues simply rotated World Series home-field advantage year by year, he responded:
"That wouldn't bother me one bit."
The All-Star managers have enough to worry about. They take pre-game abuse for the players they selected and the players they didn't select. Then there is pressure to utilize as many players as possible, regardless of circumstances. When did the ethic of this game change from seeing the stars play, to treating this like a T-ball game for tiny tots? This is how the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie, because the managers ran out of pitchers. Maybe that can't happen with rosters of 34 men, but the larger rosters only exacerbate the issue of playing more people.
This game should be so good that it doesn't need to carry any extra weight, or add any extraneous issues. The whole thing about "this time it matters," or "this time it counts" misses the point. The All-Star Game always mattered, even when it didn't "count." In fact, in some ways, it mattered much more when it didn't count.