Best Players Deserve Innings In Only Decent All-Star Game
By Jim Henneman
KANSAS CITY -- Even without all the trendy bells and whistles, which sometimes overshadow the main event during today's reality era, baseball's All-Star Game stands alone as the best spectacle of its kind in professional sports. Considering how the NBA version has evolved into a game of HORSE, while the NFL plays flag football and the NHL in effect stages a 60-minute shootout, it really is a no-brainer, contrary to what the most recent effort might indicate.
Like it or not, the controversial ending of the game 10 years ago, an 11-inning, 7-7 tie, has actually enhanced the game's image. Whether or not you agree that the National League should have earned home-field advantage for this year's World Series by virtue of its 8-0 win against the American League, it cannot be denied that the fringe benefit has given added impetus to the game.
During the early decades of the game, league pride was enough to carry the day, but gradually through the years, despite its wide appeal, the game became a popularity contest, as managers were more concerned about hurt feelings than the outcome. The unwritten rule seemed to be anybody that made the trip and put on a uniform was guaranteed an appearance.
Though there have been some clunkers through the years, the game itself has been more than enough to carry the day. Even though it was unprecedented, the notion that an All-Star Game called with the score tied after 11 innings would create the furor it did in Milwaukee 10 years ago is ridiculous. If getting to see the best that both leagues have to offer go head-to-head for 11 innings, and nobody having their feelings hurt by being left out, was the worst thing that could have happened, what exactly was the big deal?
It didn't have to happen, of course. Throughout the 82-game history of the event, there have been 10 extra-innings games -- eight before the infamous so-called "debacle" 10 years ago and one since, a 15-inning marathon in 2008 that matched the longest in the game's history (1967).
You might remember that game had its own spate of controversy, as former Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail was incensed that George Sherrill, his left-handed closer, was used for three innings. Sherrill probably should have been the MVP during the American League's 4-3 win. Incidentally, that was the only time the AL has won an extra-inning game.
There was precedence set during those earlier extra-inning games to support the notion that ties were avoidable. The first All-Star Game I saw was a classic, 1966 in St. Louis, where it was 105 degrees. The National League won, 2-1, in 10 innings -- and the NL starting outfield of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente (batting 1-2-3) played the entire game.
The result was identical a year later, when the first 15-inning game was played in Anaheim, Calif., where late-afternoon shadows and Ed Runge's sizeable strike zone produced 30 strikeouts -- 17 for the National League, 13 for the American.
Incredibly, seven players, including former Oriole Brooks Robinson, went the distance. Even more remarkably, despite the fact there were three other pitchers available, Catfish Hunter pitched the last five innings (the earlier restrictions were three innings unless the game went overtime).
Funny thing is, I don't remember anybody crucifying Hank Bauer, the AL manager, about pitcher abuse. Maybe it was because Hunter was still pitching for the doormat Kansas City A's.
That '67 game was the first All-Star exposure for Tom Seaver, who pitched the last inning and was credited with the save. When he took the mound, Seaver surveyed his outfield and saw Hank Aaron in left, Willie Mays in center and Roberto Clemente in right.
Recalling the experience, Seaver told Marty Appel of MLB Insider: "I stopped cold. The moment almost overwhelmed me. Playing in New York was one thing, but the Mets were still a last-place team, and I had never experienced anything like this moment -- Aaron, Mays, Clemente, all there at once, behind me. I had these guys' baseball cards in my back pocket just a couple of years before. This was a not-to-be-believed moment for me at 22."
What shouldn't be lost here is that those kinds of moments were more the norm than the exception. Ted Williams twice hit a last-inning walk-off home run (one in extra innings) and had 57 total plate appearances during 17 games. Aaron and Stan Musial each had 72 PAs during 24 games, 10 fewer than Mays had during the same number of games. Going the distance was expected, apparently by both players and fans.
The game, for the most part, has remained a great showcase as the best hitters face the best pitchers, and the matchups can be as electric today as they were then. But the difference is there are fewer of these matchups as more and more players make token appearances.
If it were up to the fans, getting everybody in the game would be at the bottom of the list of priorities. At the same time, because of the complexities of choosing the teams, the best players sometimes are not the most popular, which leads to more liberal substitutions.
The feeling here remains that a tied All-Star Game is neither a crime nor a blemish on the game's integrity. It's something that could be tolerated -- or, at the very least, there could be a publicized tie-breaking rule in place. If the Home Run Derby can be a one-night televised extravaganza the night before the main event, as it has become, what would be wrong with a slug-off to break a tie after, let's say, 12 innings? There are all kinds of possible scenarios: for instance, a handful of players picked by either the teams themselves or the fans, or a competition between those in the lineup at the end of regulation time.
Just a crazy guess here, but odds are fans at the game and maybe even the TV network involved would be rooting for overtime. Chances are that won't happen, because the feeling is that baseball, somehow through its own fault, has stumbled onto something that enhances the relevance of the All-Star Game, not to mention TV ratings, especially in cities with plausible World Series rooting interest.
The existing format may not be ideal, but given the alternative -- rotating WS advantage between the two leagues -- it probably is the best solution. Now, if baseball ever gets to the point that all teams are playing under the same umbrella and the leagues become part of history, then it's a different story.
In the meantime, if there's a competitive edge to be had, making it competitive really isn't all that bad.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 175: July 2012