Play It With Feeling, Tony

With Tony La Russa managing the National League All-Star team next Tuesday, he will be faced with a difficult and compelling choice as to how he might elect to play the game. With the the Cardinals as the odds-on NL favorite to appear in the 2005 World Series, Major League Baseball has handed him a sterling opportunity to manage this game as one with meaning and powerful implications that could be a stepping stone to a World Series ring for the Cardinals. I hope he takes advantage of this great gift.

For the goofiest of reasons, Bud Selig and his Keystone Kops of Major League Baseball ordained that the All-Star Game, historically (and Pete Rose aside) a relaxing opportunity for fans to see the best and brightest in the game appear in one entertaining venue at the same time, should count for something. Fans were upset when the 2002 All-Star game ended in a 7-7 tie as both teams ran out of pitchers. Unable to withstand a few minutes of criticism, the commissioner overreacted and declared that the league winning future games would gain the coveted home field advantage in the World Series. Overnight, fun - a dynamic that had served the game well for decades - took a backseat to competition.

There are many reasons why La Russa might choose to play this game for keeps. One, and the easiest, reason is that he is is Tony La Russa and Tony La Russa hates to lose baseball games. He is a winner and plays to win. That compulsion to succeed is as much a part of his DNA as his full head of hair, the latter of which being much to the chagrin of this follicularly-challenged writer. That might also explain why La Russa is 3-0 in managing All-Star Games.

A more significant reason is recent history. In the 2004 World Series, home field advantage went to the Boston Red Sox by virtue of the 9-4 AL win in Houston. The stage would be set for the series sweep by the Red Sox in games 1 and 2, arguably the two games in which the Cardinals had a chance to win. Would a NL home field advantage have swayed the results? Who can say for sure, but the outcome of those first two crucial games might well have changed had they been played in St. Louis.

The 2004 World Series is water under the bridge, but the lessons learned about the power of home field advantage linger long after Edgar Renteria (remember him?) grounded out weakly to the pitcher to end the dismal fall classic at Busch Stadium. If anyone knows that, it is Tony La Russa.

Now, in their infinite wisdom, baseball has handed to La Russa a golden opportunity to directly affect the outcome of the 2005 series. While there might be an inherent conflict of interest in La Russa managing the National League team while potentially heading his own team toward the series, that is purely the creation of Bud Selig. La Russa and every denizen of Cardinal Nation should be grateful for the lunacy of Selig and his minions.

The All-Star Game has always been ensconced in an air of festivity, fun, and entertainment. The fans get to choose most of the team. The home run derby is a hoot, and the game itself can be fun. I hope Tony La Russa casts all that garbage aside and manages this game with an eye firmly cast to October.

In doing so, he may have to face difficult decisions about using, and not using, players in certain situations. While opportunities might be created during the game to showcase a certain player, that could become a secondary consideration to actually winning the game. As La Russa is handed these situations, I personally hope his prevailing consideration is not fairness to another National League player but to the actual outcome of the game and how it might impact the Cardinals should they ascend to the World Series.

While the July All-Star Game is traditionally a welcome respite for the bulk of major-league players, I hope La Russa manages this summertime institution with an eye firmly cast toward October. If a jilted Dodger or Phillie has a problem with the decision-making, let him place a call to Selig, the founder of the problem. Tony La Russa has higher priorities to address.

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