MLB: Whiff of importance keeps All-Star game competitive

By Benjamin Hoffman

New York Times News Service

Published: Thursday, July 18 2013 12:42 a.m. MDT

Since Major League Baseball started attaching home-field advantage in the World Series to the outcome of the All-Star Game, in 2003, declaring, “This time it counts,” the slogan has often been ridiculed.

There continues to be plenty of fodder for those who mock how seriously the game is taken, because it is an exhibition. On Tuesday night, for example, the American League, in a close game, replaced outfielder Mike Trout, one of the best all-around players in the game, with Torii Hunter, an aging player who could not match Trout’s skills even in his prime.

But judging by recent scores, attaching significance to the All-Star Game has had a positive effect on its competitiveness. In 2002 the game had veered into that ridiculous territory of other sports’ All-Star games when Commissioner Bud Selig threw his hands up and declared the game over because neither manager had kept enough pitchers in reserve to play past 11 innings.

The next season the league gave the midsummer classic some meaning in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the mistake. The change was encouraged by Fox Sports as a way to boost the game’s declining TV ratings.

The 7-7 tie in 2002 was certainly embarrassing, and is still something that MLB would rather not remember. The website Hardball Talk pointed out this week that MLB left the result of the 2002 game off Citi Field’s scoreboard Monday night during the Home Run Derby despite showing the scores of every other All-Star Game since 2000. (MLB added the score Tuesday night.)

Despite that tie, baseball’s All-Star Games are increasingly seen as legitimate matchups in which both sides actually play defense, in contrast with what goes on when the NBA and NHL All-Stars gather. In the last decade, the average number of runs scored in the All-Star Game has been a tidy 7.9. On Tuesday the total was lower, with the American League winning, 3-0, the second consecutive year a team was shut out.

David Wright, who started at third base after the New York Mets campaigned to have their best player start in their home park, said the intense matchups against the game’s best players can be humbling even after seven trips to the All-Star Game.

“It’s not much fun,” Wright said of what it was like to face pitchers like Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and Greg Holland, a group he was 1 for 3 against. “The thought of the All-Star Game is phenomenal as a hitter, but then when you actually have to dig in and you get three guys throwing upper 90s with good secondary pitches it puts you in your place a little.”

Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants catcher who was playing in his second All-Star Game, echoed Wright’s take on things, adding that the pitchers the National League sent out were no easier to face.

“Each guy I caught tonight was throwing around a hundred,” Posey said. “For guys coming off the bench later in the game it’s not the easiest task.”

Bruce Bochy, who managed the National League All-Stars for the third time, thought the skill level on both sides was something to behold.

“That’s a good lineup we threw out there, a lot of great hitters,” he said. “You give them credit. They pitched well, and we just got shut down. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.”

The motivation for players is easy to understand. Not only are they on one of baseball’s biggest stages, but for those players on teams with realistic World Series chances, they have a chance to affect home-field advantage. It may seem trivial, but home-field advantage is not to be discounted: The team with it won the past four World Series and 22 of the past 27.

Posey, who was on the National League’s winning squad last season, knows the importance of home-field advantage firsthand, as it helped his Giants sweep the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.