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Learning to Count

By Eddie Matz | Posted 7/23/2003

Tuesday, July 15, 4:26 p.m. --Melvin Mora is an All Star for the first time in his major league career. Lucky him--it couldn't have happened at a better time. After all, as Fox's promos have made it abundantly clear, "This time it counts." That's right, this year the All-Star Game actually means something. Tonight, the AL and NL duke it out for home-field advantage in the World Series, and you can color me curious.

The new stakes are a welcome change from recent years, when All-Star managers focused primarily on getting each and every player on their 472-man rosters into the contest, albeit often to pinch-run or as a ninth-inning defensive replacement. Last year, the game's meaninglessness reached epic proportions when it ended in a 7-7 tie after 12 innings because both skippers had run out of pitchers. Gee, guess that's what happens when you yank Barry Zito--that's right, the same Barry Zito who won the 2002 American League Cy Young--after just one measly batter.

As ridiculous as last summer's fiasco was, there are still more than a few critics who believe that dangling the home-field advantage bone isn't the right answer, including the players themselves. "It's dumb," Seattle second baseman Bret Boone said. "Pretty much everyone I know goes out and plays their best anyway. We don't need a slogan, 'This time it counts,' to motivate us."

Fine, but the managers sure as hell do. And if you think that All-Star skippers Mike Scioscia and Dusty Baker--both of whose teams are in the thick of playoff contention--wouldn't love to have a leg up should their respective Angels or Cubs make the Fall Classic, then you're just plain wrong. Same goes for guys like Atlanta's Gary Sheffield, New York's Alfonso Soriano, and St. Louis' Scott Rolen, all of whom hope to still be punching the clock come October.

What's it all mean? Well, a couple things. First, it means that the Orioles' lone All-Star representative (don't even get me started on Sidney Ponson's omission) stands a pretty good chance of riding the pine for the entire game. Second, it means that even though Mora might not see the light of night, my ass will be firmly planted on the sectional at 8:45 p.m. tonight in time for the first pitch. I haven't cared about the Midsummer Classic in years, but this year's different. This time it counts. Boone might not need a slogan to motivate him, but I'm fairly certain that millions of TV viewers do. I know I do. Should be interesting to see what happens. . . .

Tuesday, July 15, 11:19 p.m. --Wow, what a game. The AL comes back from deficits of 5-1 and 6-3, homering in its final three at-bats. In the bottom of the eighth, Texas Rangers sophomore third baseman Hank Blalock crushes an improbable pinch-hit two-run bomb off of the Dodgers' unhittable closer/monster Eric Gagne, putting his squad up for good. AL wins 7-6. As far as I'm concerned, this new home-field advantage thingy can stay.

It's hard to say whether Baker and Scioscia really gave a damn, but it certainly would appear so: Seven starters stayed in the game long enough to register three at-bats. Last year, only one starter did so. With the exception of Rondell White pinch-hitting for Barry Bonds in the seventh inning (and appropriately grounding into a double play), pretty much every managerial move seemed legit. To top it off, Scioscia even came out of the dugout to argue a call in the fifth inning.

Mercifully, the "All Stars" that didn't deserve playing time--like Pirates closer Mike Williams (6.44 ERA) and Devil Rays closer Lance Carter (4.05 ERA, six blown saves in 21 chances)--didn't get any. Everybody knows that the only reason these guys even made the trip to Chicago is because of the absurd rule that there must be at least one All-Star representative from each major league team. You know it. I know it. Baker and Scioscia know it. That's why they kept these tokens on the bench. Frankly, if I'm Williams or Carter, I'm more embarrassed than honored.

Melvin Mora, on the other hand, should feel honored. He deserved to be in Chicago, and deserved to get into the game. No shame in coming into the game as an eighth-inning pinch runner for All-Star MVP Garret Anderson. That's exactly how Mora should have been used. After all, he's quicker than Anderson, and when managers are trying to win a game that's what they do: let the big hitters hit and the fast runners run.

Like I said, this home-field advantage doohickey can definitely stay. It's a good thing. But it could be a great thing. Here's what I recommend for next year: Instead of letting the skippers from the previous year's World Series pilot the All-Star game, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig should follow the NBA's lead and tap the two managers whose teams have the best record at the break. Naturally, these would be the two managers whose teams stand the best chance of going to the World Series and, therefore, the two managers most invested in gaining home-field advantage.

Then it would really count.

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