Still counting after all these years

CINCINNATI – It’s both easy and tempting to criticize whatever’s not perfect. But of course that’s a self-destructive, self-defeating, and occasionally self-loathing impulse, since nothing is perfect. Let us take, for example, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Please.

It’s exceptionally easy to find fault with the All-Star Game. Trust me. I’ve written many thousands of words about what’s wrong with the All-Star Game, going back almost 20 years. There was a stretch of a few years – and yes, I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but we’re all friends here, so… – when I didn’t even bother to watch the Midsummer Classic. I’d grown up with All-Star games with smaller rosters, and starting pitchers who pitched (gasp!) three innings, and managers who might use only five pitchers in the whole game. Back then, the All-Star Game felt more like a real baseball game than it does now.

Of course, I’m sure when I was growing up, the old salts were making exactly the same complaints about the All-Star Game, and romanticizing the Midsummer Classics of their youth.

Yes, I do believe the rosters are too big, the numbers of innings pitched and at-bats granted the very best players too small. But of course everything’s relative. The rosters might be larger, the playing time given to the best players could be even shorter. Major League Baseball probably will, someday, dress everyone on the teams in league-specific uniforms, rather than allowing the players to wear their usual team livery.

But for now, most of the best players are still getting two or even (gasp!) three at-bats in the big game, and we’re still treated to the livery of all 30 official franchise liveries on one field (well, except for the caps, but what are you gonna do).

Which isn’t as exciting as it once was! Because the novelty’s not what it once was. Thanks to the magic of 21st century television and WiFi, you can see almost every team almost every day. When I was a little kid, I might see Pete Rose and Steve Garvey once every summer: in the All-Star Game. Now I can see Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey any time I like. And I do like, a lot. This would make the All-Star Game less interesting, regardless of whether McCutchen and Posey bat three times, or just once. Essentially, the All-Star Game is less interesting today because the rest of the season is so damn interesting.

You want to make the All-Star Game better? Easy. First, shave the roster down by a few spots. That’ll help a little. Just a very little. Second, lock American League fans out of National League games, and vice-versa. Also, no more interleague games. American League vs. American League, National League vs. National League, and never the twain shall meet. No more Extra Innings, no more, no more getting to have whatever you want, whenever you want it.*

* horrible terrible blackout rules notwithstanding, that is

What do you think? Would you trade all that delicious freedom for a more compelling All-Star Game? Because I sure wouldn’t. Ultimately, the All-Star Game can never be what it once was, largely because nobody except a tiny number of dead-enders would want it to be what it was: practically our only chance to see most of the best baseball players in the world in living, moving color.

Now, let me address one more popular criticism of the All-Star Game: THIS TIME IT COUNTS doesn’t belong in an exhibition game, however glorified.

Well, maybe not. But I will simply ask anyone with that critique to supply some evidence that tying the All-Star Game to home field in the World Series makes a damn bit of difference. Or is any worse than how it used to be done.

Remember, the home field used to be “awarded” on the basis of … the Gregorian calendar. Before 2003, home field had exactly zero ties to the performance of even a single human being. So that was better than this?

About this, though … I like Bob Ryan a lot, but when he writes this:

Bud, as we well know, completely overreacted. The ratings were drooping anyway in this ever-changing world, and Bud panicked. We’ll spruce up the game. How about making it worth something? Gee, let’s have the winning side determine home-field advantage for the World Series.

So now we have a game that’s not real baseball determining which league hosts Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 in the World Series.

It’s not a game if pitchers throw one inning. It’s not a game if managers try to get everyone on a bloated roster into the game. It’s not a game if every franchise, no matter how wretched, has to put a player on the team. And it’s not a rivalry when the AL and NL play each other all the time and even the umpires are all the same. The only difference in the two leagues is the DH, and, yes, that too is an absurd concept. There should be unity.

If the game is going to count, tell the managers to channel their inner Connie Mack and go for it. That might get peoples’ attention. But right now very few people care about the All-Star Game, and you know what?

They shouldn’t.

I don’t believe it’s a sportswriter’s job to tell fans which games they should care about and which they shouldn’t. I respect with absolute, metaphysical certitude anyone’s right not to care about the Super Bowl, or the Women’s World Cup, or even this bastardized version of the All-Star Game. But leaving aside all Ryan’s other criticisms – some of which I agree with, some not – how much difference does hosting Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 in the World Series really make?

Since World War II, the “home” team in the World Series have gone 38-30. Granted, the advantage has been distinct more recently, with the home teams winning 15 of the last 20 Seriouses. And I suppose you can, if you want to try real hard, argue that the home field is more important in this era because the crowds are louder than they used to be.

That’s probably a stretch, though! Especially if you believe, as I do, that since every team is guaranteed at least four games – and thus an equal home/road split of games through four games, and an actual edge if there’s not a sweep – then the home field becomes meaningful only when the Series lasts seven games.

Which has happened only twice since home field was tied to the All-Star Game. In 2011, the Cardinals beat the Rangers at home in Game 7. In 2014, the Royals lost at home against the Giants.

That’s it. Two Games 7, with no advantage to the home teams.

That’s right, friends. All those dozens or hundreds of newspaper and Internet columns, the thousands of talk-radio minutes devoted to railing against the utter injustice of it all? It’s all about approximately … nothing. Piffle.

This time it counts gives a few viewers a little extra bit of suspense, and it gives the managers a slightly greater incentive to actually try to win the game. Which seem like good things. And try as I might, I just can’t seem to come up with any bad things. Maybe when I’m done growing up, though…