What's good (and not so good) about baseball's All-Star Game

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Like any all-star game, baseball’s midsummer classic has its features and its flaws, its friends and its foes. For decades, it set the standard for sports all-star games, an intense inter-league rivalry burning at the core of an annual showcase of great talent and larger-than-life personalities.

In recent years, the game has grown somewhat stale, alienating some of its fan base with new rules and changing dynamics. I still consider the All-Star Game one of the highlights of the MLB season. Here are three reasons to love the All-Star Game, along with two reasons it’s not what it used to be:

It’s a showcase of elite talent.

Theoretically, the best player at each position in each league starts the game. The reserves are world-class as well, sometimes better than the starters, and the bullpen is stacked with the game’s best starters and relievers.

Best of all, they’re all in one place, cracking jokes at the Home Run Derby, hugging and high-fiving regular season rivals as they drive each other in or turn a great double play. The World Series usually gives us two great teams, but only in the All-Star Game can we watch Justin Verlander pitch against Matt Kemp, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto in succession.

The talent isn’t always elite.

Verlander won’t pitch in this year’s game because he pitched on the final Sunday of the first half. Several other great pitchers will back out for the same reason, and players like Derek Jeter will take the week to nurse minor injuries that wouldn’t keep them out of a regular season game. A player who opts out of the game is replaced by the third-or-fourth best player at his position — often someone having a decent season but without any real star power.

Sometimes, as in Jeter’s case, the starters are selected for the game based solely on star power, years after their tenure as useful major leaguers has lapsed. Jhonny “Sic” Peralta won’t make this year’s game despite having a much better season than Jeter. Conversely, Albert Pujols won’t be there because he’s not having as strong a season as Fielder and Votto. We can’t always get the biggest names and the best players in the game.

Furthermore, the rule requiring each team to be represented in the All-Star Game waters down the talent pool. Does anyone really want to see Aaron Crow pitch against Hunter Pence just because their teams don’t have anyone better to call an All-Star?

It’s a fascinating puzzle for managers.

I’m a fan of American League baseball, so I don’t get to witness NL strategy too often. The Red Sox tend to start and finish games with the same nine hitters and a regular season game might have two or three pitching changes.

In the All-Star Game, the managers whose teams made the previous year’s World Series have to deal with 30-something larger-than-life egos, some of whom play for them all year, while others play for bitter rivals. Their primary goal tends to be finding an inning or an at-bat for everyone, while saving a pitcher or two in case the game goes into extra innings. This takes serious skill and mastery of the art of the double switch, which replaces a pitcher and a position player at the same time, generally switching their spots in the batting order to bring a better hitter (or just one who may not otherwise get an at-bat) to the plate in the next inning.

Of course, the manager’s other goal is to win the game, which tends to be a competitive one. While the American League had won 12 consecutive decisions (excluding 2002’s tie) before losing last year, six straight games have been decided by one or two runs. This makes for great theater, except that …

The players don’t really care.

From the first All-Star Game in 1933 to the introduction of inter-league play in 1997, American League players rarely had a chance to play against their National League counterparts. Aside from the World Series, there was no way to pit the leagues against each other to determine which was the superior league.

From the AL sweeping the first three games and taking seven of eight in the 1940s to the National League winning 19 of 20 between1963 and 1982, the All-Star Game settled the debate of league superiority. Iconic moments like Stan Musial’s 12th inning walk-off homer (yeah, the starters were still in the game back then) and Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse at home plate were born of an intense rivalry and great league pride.

In recent years, players have had more opportunities to play against each other throughout the year, both through interleague play and more player movement. Trades have always been a part of the game, but free agency is less than 40 years old and the practice of offloading high-priced stars for prospects at the July trade deadline is even newer.

If former Blue Jay and current Phillie Roy Halladay pitches to David Ortiz in this year’s game, it will be the 107th time the two have faced off. Halladay will look for his 17th strikeout of Ortiz, while Ortiz will try to take Halladay deep for the seventh time. Business as usual.

After the aforementioned tie, baseball commissioner Bud Selig introduced an incentive to keep the game competitive, awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the team from the league that won the All-Star Game. I’ve seen little evidence that this reward has motivated the players, as dozens of players opt out of the game every year and as far as I know, no starter has begged his manager to let him play the whole game.

Most of the players in the game won’t even see the World Series, and even if they do, no World Series has gone seven games since 2002, so home field advantage hasn’t meant much.

It’s a subject of great debate.

Despite all its faults, baseball’s All-Star Game will always be entertaining for one reason above all: debate. The fans vote on the starters, which tends to skew the results toward established stars and players who play in bigger markets with more fans.

Most of the reserves and some of the pitchers are chosen by the players themselves, in a convoluted process that usually picks several worthy players and a few head-scratchers.

The remaining players are chosen by the managers, who have to be sure every team is represented before choosing players who will help their team win the game.

As fans, we love the opportunity to influence the game by voting, and we bemoan the fact that other fans get to vote in their hometown guys ahead of ours. We chastise the managers for going with their own guy over a more qualified player (anyone remember Ryan Howard over Joey Votto in 2010?). We question what stats everyone else was looking at when they overlooked the guy leading the league in the stats we view as important.

All of this is what makes Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game fun for baseball fans. Even if the players would rather take a few days off.

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