How We’d Fix It: MLB All-Star Week
The MLB All-Star Game isn’t perfect. Neither are the adjacent events and activities. At Grantland, we’ve made something of a habit of acknowledging this truth, then offering suggestions for how we’d fix it. Some of our proposals have been serious, others infinitely less so … but they’ve all come from the heart (or the assignment desk). Because we respect tradition, and because All-Star week still needs quite a bit of help, here are five new ideas for how to fix the Midsummer Classic. (And click here to read how Grantland would fix other things.)
Put Prospects in the Derby!
Ben Lindbergh: Human beings have an incredible capacity to live for the moment. Case in point: Despite having seen that scary Cosmos episode about climate change, and despite the certain knowledge that someday I’m going to die, I’m spending precious minutes of my limited lifetime writing about exhibition baseball instead of saving the planet or curling up in the corner and waiting for the Reaper to arrive.
Well, the All-Star Game’s World Series home-field advantage gimmick requires human beings to live for a moment that might matter to them a few months from now. As hooks go, that one’s barbless at best. Worse, it applies only to a select few fan bases. The A’s are a near lock to make the playoffs, so their fans will be invested, even though the game could come down to a matchup between non-A’s like Pat Neshek and Kurt Suzuki. For fans of teams whose playoff hopes have already faded, though, home-field advantage is a pointless, almost painful prize, like an exemption from the estate tax on an inheritance they’ll never receive.
In the era of MLB.TV and near-daily interleague play, making stars square off in a fight for league bragging rights is no longer a formula for event viewing. The key to making the meaningless compelling isn’t introducing artificial stakes, however, no matter how high. What we really want is to see something exotic: the same players doing different activities, or the same activities done by different players.
There aren’t many ways to increase the novelty value of the All-Star Game itself, but there’s plenty that MLB could do to up the originality during the few days of All-Star festivities — hence the skills-competition suggestions that several of my colleagues will make momentarily. Even if we’re stuck with the single skills competition we’ve been watching since the ’60s, though, there is one way we could keep it fresh: by putting prospects in the Home Run Derby.
“Watch Brian Dozier take batting practice!” is a tough sell even to Twins fans. Todd Frazier is a fine player, but the prospect of seeing him hit doesn’t make me want to drop whatever I’m doing. The solution: Replace the least-exciting players on the Derby rosters with the minor league home run leaders. This year, the AL and NL representatives would be the Rangers’ Joey Gallo and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, respectively, both of whom have won derbies at lower levels. They’re two of the minors’ most promising (and most interesting) players, boasting top-of-the-scouting-scale power, and they already made the trip to Minnesota for the Futures Game (which deserves a better broadcast time). The mere sight of the two taking BP on Sunday took over Twitter.
Before long, Gallo and Bryant will be big leaguers, and we’ll be able to watch them in high def whenever we want. For now, though, they’d be Derby underdogs, still new and unknown. That air of mystery and massive power would make me tune in to an event I normally don’t mind missing.
Run a Relay!
Michael Baumann: Apart from the Pro Bowl, which is useless, every North American all-star game features a skills competition of some kind. And of those, MLB’s one-sided competition, the Home Run Derby, is the lamest. A more holistic skills competition would at least make the day before the game itself more interesting. Last year, I suggested a few potential skills competitions — including an egg toss — but the commissioner’s office has yet to return my calls. So I’m doubling down and introducing the MLB Skills Relay.
Here’s how it works: Each team consists of a batter, an outfielder, an infielder, a catcher, and a baserunner. The outfielder stands behind a line, say, 300 feet from the plate, and the batter hits fly balls to him. Once the outfielder catches one on the fly, he throws home, and then the catcher throws down to the infielder at second base. The infielder then hands the ball off to the baserunner, who hauls ass from second to home.
Since this sounds a little complicated, I’ve busted out MS Paint to help illustrate the concept. Essentially, each side has to get the ball from home plate to a set point on the field one way, and then get it back home another way. It’s a relay race, and the baseball is the baton.
Sure, it’s great to watch Yoenis Cespedes launch balls into the upper deck, but that’s not the only fun part about baseball, and this relay would allow players to show off some of the best throwing arms and fastest feet in the game. It would also add a little teamwork element, which is always fun.
Mostly, I just want MLB to embrace the idea of trying something new. All the talk about the sport not appealing to kids and decreasing in popularity is either nonsense or overblown, but baseball does give off the impression that it’s run under the same stubborn aversion to change that makes your dad unable to check his email unless you show him how 500 times. So let’s try something else. If it works, great. If not, it’s only the All-Star Game. It’s not like the whole week counts.
Time Baserunning … and Use Holograms!
Shane Ryan: The Home Run Derby is boring, and it gets more boring every year. I’m not exactly sure why, since other skills competitions in other sports are great, but I do know that we need to focus on a different skill. So I ask you this, America:
Why not baserunning?
I know, right? I like the idea, too!
Here’s how it would work: We’d start with 20 of the best baserunners in baseball for the “prelims,” and each player would be timed running around the bases, home to home. The top eight would make the quarterfinals, but before I explain how that phase would work, I’d like to emphasize how cool the prelims would be on their own. First, I imagine that we’d have the “world-record line” technology we see in Olympic swimming, so on TV we’d see the runner competing against the best time on the books (and since we’re here, why can’t it be hologram tech, so it looks like an actual race between two people?). In future years, we’d be comparing against the best time in history, so in 2036 we could have announcers wondering aloud whether anyone would take down Brett Gardner’s 20-year-old record in the four-base dash.
Moving on …
• Quarterfinals: The Stolen Base. Each runner would take a lead off first (same distance, obviously) and watch a robot pitcher, waiting for movement. On the first movement of the robotic arm, the clock would start, and it would stop when the player touches second base. False starts would count as pickoffs.
• Semifinals: Scoring From Second. Again, the players would take the same lead off second, and take off at the gun. Time would stop when they touch home plate.
• Finals: The Triple. The most exciting play in baseball, according to Hank Aaron. For this, the batter would begin in the box and actually hit the ball. The clock would start the moment the bat makes contact with the ball, and ends when the player touches third base.
• Possible wrinkle: A heavyweight division, 250-pound plus. Please, Bud Selig, make this your lasting legacy.
Accept That Everything Is Awful!
Jonah Keri: I’m the most positive guy you’ll ever meet. Also, I love baseball. Adore it. Bathe myself in it.
But All-Star week — the Home Run Derby, the actual All-Star Game, and especially the four days with no real baseball — are freaking terrible. Uh-oh. Here comes Angry Jonah.
Why the hell does this game “count”? It’s a total farce. AL All-Star manager John Farrell has already said he won’t use any pitcher for more than one inning under any circumstances. How is that managing to win? Why should that count? Wait, I know:
Speaking of our befuddled commissioner, is the recent wave of positive Selig stories akin to not speaking ill of the dead? Even when a journalist is doing honest reporting, listening to Selig’s words makes me want to vomit in terror. I particularly enjoyed this quote from this May piece:
“The last 10 years have by far been the greatest attended years ever,” Selig said. “We’re going to have labor peace for 21 years. And for those of you who have been around a lot, that is almost unbelievable. When I took over in 1992, the gross revenue … was $1.2 billion. This year is will be well over $8 billion, $8.5 billion.”
Yes, congratulations for all of that, commissioner! Congratulations for having the cash to buy your way into the exclusive and collusive club of owners who ruled the sport throughout the ’80s. Congratulations for sweet-talking enough cronies into propelling you into a job that pays well more than $20 million a year. And congratulations for coincidentally presiding over Major League Baseball at a time of unprecedented growth for every sport, when every TV outlet is desperate to broadcast live events, thrusting all sports and all sports teams into a supremely enviable position.
If I’m being honest, I think I know why my indifference to All-Star week has turned into frustration and even anger:
In 1994, Selig failed to get large-market teams to share revenue with small-market teams, leading to the cancellation of the final seven weeks of the season, the entire playoffs, and — albeit indirectly — a major league franchise. So now, every All-Star Game reminds me of that Midsummer Classic 20 years ago, when the best team in baseball sent five representatives to Three Rivers Stadium, only for those players and their 20 teammates to get robbed of a chance to prove their mettle in October.
So how can we fix All-Star week? Unless someone’s got a time machine, we can’t.
Sunny Jonah will return on Friday, when this horrible week is over. But not one second sooner.
Truth in Marketing!
Mallory Rubin: Do you know what Americans hate even more than a Home Run Derby that doesn’t feature baseball’s current home run leaders? LIES! All-Star week has a lot of actual problems, but more than anything, it has an image problem. The good news is, image problems are the easiest to fix, because doing so requires little more than the ability to bullshit the masses and manipulate expectations. With that in mind, here are a few tips that Major League Baseball should implement immediately. You’re welcome, Bud.
• Instead of calling the players who will take the field on Tuesday night “All-Stars,” call them what they actually are: “The Replacements.” At this point, it’s almost impossible to track how many guys have dropped out of the game following injury or a Sunday start, so why even bother trying? Instead of pretending that Henderson Alvarez really deserves to take the mound for the NL side as much as Jordan Zimmermann would have, let’s embrace the fact that Alvarez is Keanu Reeves and move on with our lives. That way, instead of feeling like we’re watching the jayvee team, we’ll feel like we’re rooting for the underdogs.
• Rebrand the Futures Game as the Trade Bait Game: Right now, baseball fans care way more about potential trades than they do about exhibition games. While the bulk of the prospects who took the field for Sunday’s Futures Game are blue-chip cornerstones who qualify as untouchables, that won’t stop GMs nationwide from demanding that Player X be inserted into Trade Y, come hell or high water. So why not play into those delusions? The Futures Game is already a more intriguing showcase than the All-Star Game itself, but fans don’t necessarily care about their team’s Double-A middle infielder enough to actually watch. They might care more if they had reason to assume that every player on the diamond could be a member of their favorite team in three weeks, though. It’s science.
• Make euphemistic language literal: Guys, this isn’t hard. If we’re living in a world where there’s even a remote possibility that the announcers will say something about a pitcher “serving up a meatball” to NL Final Vote winner Anthony Rizzo, we should be living in a world where a pitcher actually serves up a meatball to Anthony Rizzo. Precision of language, people.