PITTSBURGH – Baseball loves its traditions, blindly so sometimes, like the one that says you can't bunt to break up a no-hitter. During Jim Abbott's no-no in 1993, the Cleveland Indians' Kenny Lofton squared to bunt in the ninth inning. Even though Lofton missed, the fans at Yankee Stadium nearly rioted. Maybe, just maybe, because Lofton didn't try bunting again, the Indians are in the history books, and not for a good reason.
All of this is to say: Baseball is stubborn and its stubbornness stunts progress. Tradition is not just the culmination of history; it is dogma. And it is why Major League Baseball continues to field its All-Star game as a competition between the American and National Leagues instead of one pitting the United States against the World.
The idea of change would seem radical if it didn't make so much sense. The All-Star game, as currently constituted, is a perfectly acceptable showcase for the game's greatest players, and those watching it Tuesday night will likely flick off their televisions and say, "That was OK." They will not talk of the enjoyment and the drama because a series of changes in other parts of the game – mostly for the better – have marginalized that.
Free agency, in its ubiquity, can take an AL lifer and send him to the NL, neutering the loyalty that made All-Star games so intense. Interleague play steals the novelty of the leagues playing twice (in the All-Star game and World Series). And awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star game, a decision spurred by the 7-7 tie in 2002 – what, did baseball take lessons in crisis P.R. from Exxon?
There is one solution to imbue the game with intrigue, and that is to put players from the U.S. on one side of the ballot and players from every other country on the other side and let the fans choose the best starting lineups for each. Already they seem to do a good job: In both leagues, five starters are from the U.S. and five outside of it.
It's not like this international thing doesn't sell. The World Baseball Classic. Sixteen teams. Overhyped, it seemed, until they started playing. Yeah, it was incredible. It charged the atmosphere of a dull spring training. It made people care.
Since the pluses outnumbered the minuses, testing the idea seemed like the next step. So we asked 15 All-Stars – eight Americans, seven internationals – about changing the format to U.S. against the World.
And, well, you know what they say about traditions.
No, this one wasn't dying hard, not by a long shot. Of the 15 players, only four liked the U.S. vs. the World idea.
"Around the world, we've improved so much," Minnesota Twins starter Johan Santana said. "You see so many Latin players and Japanese players; it shows the kind of baseball we're playing. America has always been there."
It seemed that way until the WBC. Team USA flopped. Japan, most of whose players are in a league long considered inferior, blazed through the tournament and beat Cuba in the finals.
Flags waved and emotions rung and patriotism flourished – and the same thing would happen, in an even more concentrated one-game setting, were baseball to give the All-Star game a facelift.
Every four years.
"Yeah, well … no," Jeter said. "I like American League vs. National League."
That's the question without a good answer. The Futures Game is U.S. against the World. In the Puerto Rican winter leagues, the most popular game has been Natives vs. Imports. Baseball keeps expecting a moment like Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse, and instead it gets milquetoast game after milquetoast game. Well-played, sure, and full of stars, yes, but lacking anything remarkable.
Baseball keeps trying to play up the home-field advantage, like it actually counts, ignoring the 162 games each team plays in the regular season. It seems senseless that an exhibition game determines something so important. Of the last 20 teams in the World Series with home field, 17 won the championship.
Certainly the players will not dog it in the AL-NL game Tuesday, for pride's sake and to stave off national scorn. The ultimate question, though, the most telling, was rather simple: For whom would you rather play, your country or your league?
"The way it is right now, it's nice that I can do both," said Bay, a Canadian. "I can do the World Baseball Classic and this, and we keep everybody happy."
Everybody except the people watching.
- Major League Baseball
- World Baseball Classic