MLB's showcase is the best in the business, but that doesn't mean it can't be improved

The Baltimore Sun

During his annual All-Star Game luncheon with baseball writers last week, commissioner Bud Selig got a little irked about a specific line of questioning.

And this one had nothing to do with Barry Bonds.

He was asked about potential changes to make baseball's All-Star Game a better sell -- for fans and for TV viewers. And Selig quickly pointed out that though baseball's player showcase could be tweaked, it is still by far the most popular all-star game among the major sports.

The esteemed former car dealer is right on both accounts. It is better than any other All-Star Game. But it can be tweaked.

Here are a few suggestions on how to drum up more interest in the midsummer classic, which was viewed by a solid 31.4 million TV viewers Tuesday.

Start it earlier: This is a no-brainer. And the same goes with all postseason games. Because of all the pomp and circumstance in San Francisco, the first pitch Tuesday was at 8:54 p.m. in the East. And the nail-biting ending -- a one-run game, bases loaded, two outs -- came at exactly midnight.

That's just ludicrous.

It takes three hours to play a baseball game these days. It's going to drag on. We may not like that, but we get it.

However, there is no logical reason that the first pitch can't be at 7:05 p.m. EDT -- or even 7:30. Might that mean a little less in advertising dollars? Sure. But it'll be made up for in buzz the next morning when most Americans can say they actually saw the ending.

One of the primary arguments for the late start is to be fair to the West Coast. Yet I can attest that nearly 44,000 San Franciscans had no problem packing AT&T; Park by about 4:30 Pacific time Tuesday. They'll adjust -- and they'll still have time for a late dinner after the game goes off the air.

Take away player input: There are arguments each year over which deserving major leaguers were snubbed. That's part of the fun of the All-Star Game. And it's unavoidable, even if rosters are expanded from 32 to 40.

One way of getting more deserving players on the rosters, however, is to take the vote out of the players' hands. It sounds crazy, because those who play the game should know best -- and that's why they were given power to pick a chunk of each league's reserves.

But the players are too busy -- and often don't care enough -- to analyze the numbers and pick the best at that particular time. So they often go with players they respect the most, and that's how guys like Boston's Manny Ramirez and Atlanta's Brian McCann got in without having superlative 2007s.

The fans have done a solid job recently picking starters. Keep it that way. Then allow the manager of each All-Star squad to pick the remaining 23 for each roster (not counting the final, online-voted All-Star, which can still be handled by the fans). That allows managers to have a little more freedom, and perhaps avoid glaring snubs.

Also, continue the rule that requires one representative from each team. It's harder to build a fair roster, but it also provides a specific reason to watch for fans from Tampa Bay, Kansas City and, yes, Baltimore and Washington.

Add a reliever: I've been on this bandwagon since the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie. Create a 33rd spot on each roster for a non-closing reliever.

That would serve two purposes. First, it would provide insurance for extra innings. Second, it would give props to outstanding setup men or middle relievers who otherwise are overshadowed by starters and closers.

Going in, the selected relievers would know they'll pitch only if the game goes into extra innings. Otherwise, they'll just be uniformed spectators. Still, they'll get all the other All-Star perks.

Give it international flavor: Want to get the players really pumped up while improving ratings and merchandise sales worldwide? Once every three years, take away "American" and "National" and replace it with "U.S." and "World."

That's right, throw away the conventional formatting every third year and make it a mini-World Baseball Classic (or Futures Game). Put America's best against the top international players in the big leagues.

Every third year, the teams wouldn't be playing for World Series home-field advantage but for serious bragging rights. During those special years, the World Series would go back to an alternate home-field-advantage process. In other words, once every six years -- no matter what happens in the All-Star Game -- a league is guaranteed to have home-field advantage at least once.

OK, so maybe this idea seems like a novelty. But it would inject a new wrinkle into the All-Star Game without permanently altering its format and tradition.

Mandate a Pujols appearance: To make sure overmanaging -- which St. Louis' Tony La Russa demonstrated so adeptly Tuesday -- doesn't occur, Selig should force managers to play the incomparable Albert Pujols for at least one at-bat every time he is on the All-Star roster.

The problem with this one -- besides its being a joke -- is that it would damage the true beauty of the annual contest.

As an exhibition, no one should care who plays and who doesn't. Yet baseball fans, columnists and commentators do. No matter if a World Series' home-field advantage is tied to it or not.

Only in baseball -- not the more popular NFL or the flashier NBA -- would there be an outrage that a certain player didn't get into an exhibition.

That proves Selig's salient point. Even with its flaws, baseball's All-Star showcase is unquestionably the best.

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