La Russa's All-Star Dilemmas

Brian Walton looks at the All-Star Game's player selection process and its ramifications.

Ah, the good old days… Remember when Major League Baseball's All-Star Game was a sleepy, little exhibition that served as a nice little mid-season respite for players and fans?

Well, that's all changed. With Futures Games and Home Run Derbies and the like, the marketing whizzes (said sarcastically) at MLB headquarters in New York have spiced up the festivities. I am not here to complain about any of that, as the fans seem to like it.

I am also not here to grouse about the timing of the game - but, I have to - a little. For years, I have been upset that this game only reflects a half-season of contribution, as if whatever happens in the second half each year, when teams are striving for the playoffs, is totally irrelevant.

Otherwise, there would be little debate about whether Chicago's Derrek Lee should start at first base over Albert Pujols in this All-Star contest. To save you looking it up, Lee hit .249 after the break last year. Since the last All-Star Game, Pujols' numbers are superior to Lee's in every category.

Not to mention the fact that while he's had a tremendous start to 2005, Lee has yet to register a single 100-RBI season since coming up to the majors for the first time in 1997. As a point of reference, in 1997, Pujols and his family had recently arrived in America. He was a sophomore in high school.

Since then, because Pujols arrived in the majors four years later than Lee, he has over 1100 fewer at-bats. Yet, only four home runs and 15 RBI separate their career totals, and Pujols' career hitting mark is 58 points higher than Lee's.

Bottom line, Lee is an above-average player having an exceptional season. Pujols is an exceptional player having another exceptional season.

Does it really matter, though? They'll both get to start the game anyway, since it is being played in Detroit, where the designated hitter is in use. Besides, who remembers who started in last year's game or the year before?

I admit that I had to look it up. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Edgar Renteria were selected as starters in 2004 and 2003. Two years ago, Jim Edmonds and Woody Williams were also on the squad.

The fact is, in the past, who won this exhibition served as an interesting point of argument, but had no significance - until Bud and his gang decided to make this game really count, that is.

Rather than complain about what I am not here to complain about, let's get to the point - the stupid, asinine, ridiculous decision to award home field advantage to the winner of his contest. Granted, I've made those arguments enough times already. But, I would be remiss if I did not remind everyone that the simple answer is to just allow the team with the best regular-season record to hold the scheduling advantage in any playoff series.

But, something as logical as that isn't going to happen. Instead, we have helplessly witnessed the elevation the importance of this little exhibition to a level that is completely disproportionate with the result.

No one is saying that the Cardinals would have won the 2004 World Series had they received their rightful home field advantage, but there is no doubt that it would have been a more competitive Series.

What about the last time the Cards were previously in the Series, back in 1987? At that point in time, the home field decision was based on an every-other year rotation between the two leagues. It was the American League's turn for four games and the Twinkies used the thunderous, poorly-lit, hermetically-sealed facility to maximum advantage, winning each of the four Metrodome tilts. I do mean tilts. By the way, the 1987 Cardinals won 95 regular-season games, while Minny took just 85.

Another thing that I am not here to complain about is the player selection process itself. So many systems have been tried and have failed, that it is only logical to expect the wishy-washy, we have a designated hitter-sometimes MLB braintrust (said sarcastically) to enact a hybrid player selection process that no one can understand and varies by league.

I am not getting into the differences between the American League and National League processes here, but suffice it to say the concept is the same, but because of the DH, the numbers are different.

To make matters worse, La Russa is mandated to select at least one player from every team. Because of the ridiculous alignment of the leagues, with 16 teams in the Senior Circuit versus 14 in the AL, the National League manager is forced to select someone, anyone from two more teams. That potentially means two fewer roster spots that can go to the best players, regardless of team.

Take the Colorado Rockies for example. Honestly, who from that NL-worst 25-win squad is deserving of All-Star recognition? Todd Helton is the logical choice and incumbent. However, he has hit worse in the first half than Lee did after the 2004 All-Star Game.

How about that sharp rookie, Clint Barmes, then? He's hitting a team-best .329. Whoops, Barmes fell down the stairs or hurt himself carrying deer meet or something stupid. Or, if La Russa wanted to lose the game, he could select one of the Rockies' hurlers, and I do mean hurlers.

But, no, La Russa needs to win this contest to avoid having to travel twice during the World Series and deal with a double dose of late-night meals of greasy chicken wings in some two-bit hotel miles from the ballpark.

So, now that I am done with my ranting, how are those National League All-Star rosters selected, anyway? Glad you asked.

After the Milwaukee debacle, when the 2002 game had to be called a tie when the teams ran out of pitchers, squads were increased to 32 players.

Via fan voting online and at the ballparks, the eight positional starters are selected. Through a vote by the players, coaches and managers, fifteen more are added – eight position players and seven pitchers. That makes 23.

The final player, the 32nd Man, is selected via a fan vote online during the days leading up to the contest.

Used to be that the manager could select those other reserves – in this case, eight, without a lot of interference. However, after bad behavior by Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia and others, now the Commissioner's office sits in "consultation" on those selections. Basically, that means they get veto power over the managers' choices.

Sadly, the heavy-handed policy was necessary as the managers proved they could not make impartial decisions. In fact, Katy Feeney from New York was in St. Louis over the weekend and it is likely she met with La Russa to discuss this.

So, where does all this leave the NL-champion manager? With a lot of headaches and no thanks.

La Russa gets to "consult" on just eight picks – starting with four pitchers, which he will need to fill out his game rotation. That and the fact that MLB mandates 11 pitchers will be on the squad. So, he'll have just four position player selections remaining to round out his team and satisfy all the other rules by which he's bound.

No matter what, people will be unhappy with the voting and the decisions that follow. Expect it, just like every other year.

Let's just hope the National League can manage to win the game and that its result truly does matter to the Cardinals and their fans come October.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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