Home-field All-Star plan heads down wrong road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHAT IF Cal Ripken were retiring after this season and he got voted an All-Star Game starter, only to get lifted in the second inning because Boston's Nomar Garciaparra was swinging a hot bat and American League manager Mike Scioscia - under orders to try and win home-field advantage for the World Series - felt compelled to make a strategic move?

At the 2001 All-Star Game in Seattle, before baseball installed a knee-jerk remedy for embarrassing tie games that could have been avoided in the first place, baseball fans were treated to one of those memorably spontaneous moments that a celebratory exhibition game like the All-Star Game can provide.

Ripken, after getting the start at shortstop courtesy of his protege and friend, Alex Rodriguez, lined a homer off Chan Ho Park on the first pitch of the third inning - a pretty big deal within the spacious confines of Safeco Field.

Because the main purposes of a baseball All-Star Game were to please fans and honor the greats, the Iron Man was allowed to stay on and play a few innings that night in Seattle. And for his power-driven effort in his 19th and final All-Star Game, Ripken earned Most Valuable Player honors and - best of all - etched another defining moment in the annals of big-stage baseball.

Don't look for these kinds of moments Tuesday night in Chicago.

Don't look for Ted Williams (before the deep freeze) being wheeled out for another, long Fenway ovation or Randy Johnson vs. John Kruk and/or Larry Walker to become the entertainment treats of the All-Star evening.

In an era where baseball indulges Fox television executives by allowing microphones to be planted in dugouts, baseball has succumbed to a gimmick intended to boost ratings and give the ailing industry some much needed buzz.

With All-Star Game rosters announced this weekend and the realization that managers Dusty Baker (National League) and Scioscia (AL) are supposed to try and win this thing, it's starting to sink in:

This is not an All-Star Game. This is schizophrenia, with baseball attempting to obey so many strange and conflicting voices, commissioner Bud Selig ought to call in Sybil star Joanne Woodward to play psychiatrist to Selig's Sally-Field-of-Bad-Dreams.

This is a bad idea whose time has come only because of a goofy aberration that took place last July, when NL manager Bob Brenly looked in his bullpen and realized there was no one to pitch the top of the 12th.

When baffled and irate fans started throwing brats and beers onto the field - and at their TV sets - it wasn't because they felt the All-Star format was necessarily flawed. When they booed Selig, it wasn't merely for the ill-prepared way in which Selig handled the All-Star fiasco.

The problem with last year's All-Star Game in Milwaukee wasn't that it was an exhibition game.

The problem with last year's 11-inning, 7-7 tie wasn't that Joe Torre and Brenly used it as a forum to leisurely showcase as many players as possible in a game that wasn't intended to mean anything for anyone except pleasure for fans and honor for some great players.

The problem was that there were no provisions for preventing a game reaching this kind of embarrassing impasse.

Instead, we got an overwrought Selig overreacting, instituting a format in which allegiance to one's league is supposed to take on utmost importance. This in an era when Selig abolished the two league offices, "streamlining" baseball into the humming machine it now isn't.

No one will dispute that Selig has long needed to find ways to make sure baseball continues to capture the imagination of new generations. This is called marketing. This is called running your industry like a profitable, glamorous, image-conscious corporation. This is called not maligning your players and umpires in labor disputes that run down the product.

No one doubts Selig has political cunning for the way he has brokered deals among owners. But likewise, no one doubts baseball has long needed to reposition itself as a dynamic sports industry. This All-Star scheme is not the answer.

Now it's not enough to celebrate or congregate for this year's All-Stars. Now the managers have to flagellate players into a winner-take-all position.

What's wrong with this? Well, the voting, for one thing. Sure, this year's balloting was some of the most sensible, as fans took note of first-half numbers by lesser-known stars. Albert Pujols is where he should be, first in NL voting in his potential Triple Crown season in St. Louis.

The voting was also the most democratic it has ever been, taking into consideration votes from fans, players and managers via ballots and the Internet. But that still does not mean these rosters of 32 players were set to absolutely win a ballgame.

Not when every team must be represented. Not when Mariners reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa is in and Roger Clemens is out. Not when managers will no doubt still feel compelled to give as many All-Stars an inning or two. Not when the 32nd player on each squad is the result of a last-minute Internet runoff.

This experiment gets a two-year trial. Let's hope after Tuesday, it's one down, one to go, before we're back to the midsummer classic that gives everyone time to pause, pose, laugh and, on occasion, create a memory. Some of us didn't mind the way it was.

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