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July 12, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

Fixing the All-Star Game

I watched more of this year’s All-Star Game than I have in years. First I had to watch until Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg had their chance to pitch. Then I had to see Bryce Harper get into the game. I had to walk the dog, so I missed seeing him lose the fly ball in the lights, but when I got back I wanted to see his next at bat. I wound up watching almost the entire game.

It was fun too—more fun than I remember past all-star games being. I’ve been a baseball fan for about 50 years now, and I’ve watched all-star games for about that long. As Joe Posnanski wrote, we used to watch the all-star game because it was the only real chance to see the stars. In the early sixties, my recollection is that our family’s black-and-white TV picked up four VHF channels—the three networks and one independent station—and other than the World Series and the all-star game, there were maybe 10 games broadcast each season. Because of blackout rules, home games were never broadcast, and we’d be able to see a road games maybe once every couple of weeks. Following baseball meant listening to the radio and reading the story in the next morning’s newspaper. The all-star game was literally the only chance we had to see the star players from the other league (and we didn’t see the stars from other teams in our own league that often either).

Now, of course, we can see the stars every day—ESPN, MLB tv, MASN, and games on the several hundred other stations we now have instant access to. So seeing the stars isn’t the draw that it once was.

What hasn’t changed in the 50 years I’ve been watching them, though, is that the games themselves usually aren’t very good. With their huge rosters, the efforts made to give everyone a chance to play, and the obvious fact that no one seems that interested in winning, the games just don’t carry the same interest as even a game between the Astros and the Cubs.  Posnanski’s proposed solution is to “celebrate the fact that the game doesn’t mean anything” by trying out all sorts of gimmicks and new ideas. My solution goes the other direction. Let’s try making the games more like real baseball.

I see the need for three key changes for that to happen:

1. The rosters need to be much smaller (I’ll say just how small later) so that player substitutions seem more natural and less contrived.

2. Incentives need to be created for players (and fans) to care about winning the thing. For the World Series, for example, although incentives wouldn’t seem to be needed, the players have both financial incentives (a share of the purse) and nonfinancial (wearing the ring). The military is really good at nonfinancial incentives—maybe players could wear a star on their uniform for each all-star game they’ve won. It would give the announcers something to mention on their closeup shots and would generally get people talking about winning (not just playing in) the all-star games.

3. Perhaps my most radical idea is that the game should be expanded to a three-game series. This would have several advantages. The roster substitutions would no longer be forced by the need to get everyone into a single game. Baseball fans intuitively know that any single game is a crapshoot, and the three-game series is the main-stay of the baseball season. Unlike a post-season series, they’d need to play all three games, but incentives could still be maintained by giving extra financial and nonfinancial incentives for sweeping the series. I’d recommend holding the three games in three separate stadiums, but keep the travel times down by playing them in cities that are close to each other. For example, they could be played in Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia one year, and in Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and Fenway in another year. Each stadium would host an all-star game roughly every ten years, which would give a lot more fans a chance to attend the games.

Of course, a three-game series might require a longer all-star break, but not that much longer. Currently, the break lasts from Monday through Thursday. Suppose the three-game all-star series were played on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. For games in the same region, play could resume on Friday, the same as now. For teams playing on the other side of the country, they would need to play a Saturday-Sunday-Monday series to allow for travel time on Friday. I don’t see a major effect on the schedule.

How big would the roster be? I’d like to see a distinction between starting pitchers and relievers, but I recognize that teams wouldn’t want their starters to pitch a full outing for an all-star game. My preferred option would be to have two starters, each with a pitch count limit of 65 pitches. That would be three to four innings, and a pair of starters would be expected to share a typical start of roughly seven innings. If teams balked at that, we could go with three starters each with a pitch limit of 45 pitches—roughly once through the order for each pitcher. I’d allow for seven relief pitchers, but they’d be true relievers to keep the distinction between starters and relievers. And then maybe five bench players (an extra catcher, a couple of pinch hitters, and a couple of defensive substitutes or platoon players). Basically, I’d like the bench and bullpen to look as much as possible like a regular team’s (except better, of course). If we went with three starters per game (nine altogether), each team’s roster would need to be about 30 players—16 pitchers and 14 position players

With a three-game series played like actual baseball games, I think fans would start following and rooting for the teams. It’s at least worth trying.

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