By: Dan Grant
Tonight, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be played at Target Field in Minnesota. New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter will take the field in the game for his ninth start and the fourteenth and final time in his decorated career, spanning twenty years and nineteen full seasons.
Jeter’s selection has met with some criticism. His overall statistics have tailed off the past two years. He missed almost all of 2013 with injuries and this year, playing at age 40, he looks more than a step slow, particularly on defense. So why then, is he an All-Star? The fans chose him, that’s why.
The MLB was a pioneer of the fan voting system. They implemented it for the first ever All-Star game in 1933, when the game was meant to raise money for retiring players. When that game was an overwhelming success, they immediately removed the fan voting aspect, instead allowing the managers to choose the teams. This led to a decline in interest in the game, culminating in it actually being completely cancelled in 1945 due to the Second World War. In truth, the game needed revamping. They’ve had fan voting in one form or another since the next season, 1946, when fans were again allowed to choose the starting eight players (less the pitcher). There was a voting scandal in 1957, in which the Cincinnati Reds stuffed the ballot box and wound up with seven starters – fan voting privileges were removed for 12 years, until interest in the game itself again was deemed to be waning. The fan vote was brought back in 1969 and has been present ever since.
The selection of All-Star reserves has always been the job of the All-Star manager, a role selected based on who had represented their league in the World Series the previous year. In 2003, this changed after much criticized decisions by Yankees manager Joe Torre and Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly – both selected reserve players from their own teams over much more deserving stars. After this controversy, the MLB players were allowed to vote for the All-Star reserves, and still are.
Normal Major League rosters carry 25 players – the All-Star rosters have gradually expanded and now sit at 34. A primary reason for this was the infamous 7-7 ‘tie’ All-Star game in 2002. The managers of that contest were anxious to try and get each player into the game and actually ran out of pitchers. MLB combated this by first adding a pitcher to expand rosters to 33, and then allowing the fans to have a ‘Final Vote’ and choose one player from each league, after the rest of the reserves were announced.
Another major change made after the infamous tie, is that the game now determines home field advantage for the World Series. This is supposed to give the game actual stakes but awarding this huge advantage to the winner of an arbitrary exhibition game in the middle of July makes zero sense to me. In my opinion, it further devalues the importance of having the best record in your league, in what is already an overly long regular season schedule.
Still, it’s not all bad. Because of the coup awarded to the winning team, emphasis has also been placed on creating more of a ‘team’ – reserve pitchers are selected based on actual usefulness, instead of just taking the five or six best closers in each league. Toronto’s Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar, both set-up men, were selected for the team last year and this year, you’ll see the Yankees’ Dellin Betances, the Cardinals’ Pat Neshek and the Pirates’ Tony Watson, all of whom have claim to being the best relievers on their team, despite not holding the closer role. These are important players that hold vital roles on teams and were overlooked for a very long time. The specialization of the bullpen has been the biggest change in baseball in the past 30 years. It’s a healthy evolution of the All-Star process, even if it comes from a shaky place.
While the selection process has gone through changes over the years, one thing that hasn’t changed is a phenomenon I like to call the ‘All-Star Attaboy’. It’s reserved for only the best of the best players in baseball history, for those transcendent stars that were the face of a franchise or in the case of a player like the aforementioned Derek Jeter, the face of Major League Baseball.
Jeter first reached the majors in 1995 but his first full season was 1996, the season in which the Yankees broke an eighteen year World Series drought, the longest in their team’s history. Jeter won the ’96 Rookie of the Year and has been the darling of New York City ever since. After a break in ’97, the Jeter led Yankees reeled off a three-peat from 1998-00, ensuring Jeter would forever rank among the Yankee greats. A 2009 World Series title served as a capper to a great career.
That career has been a model of consistency, something Jeter has repeatedly said he values over any other attribute or accolade. While he’s never won an MVP or a batting title, he currently ranks ninth all time with 3,408 hits. It’s likely he’ll pass Carl Yastrzemski, Honus Wagner and Cap Anson in the second half of the season (he needs just 27 more hits to do so), finishing his career sixth overall, in which case he’d be behind only Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Pete Rose on the all-time list. Pretty crazy company. My personal favourite stat? He led the league in hits twice in his career, in 1999 and then again in 2012, thirteen seasons apart. That says everything you need to know about his consistency in the regular season.
The playoffs are another story. While the numbers have certainly been buoyed by his being one of the first greats to play entirely in the Wild Card era, Jeter is the all-time leader in post-season games played, hits, singles, doubles, triples, runs scored, and total bases. He ranks third in home runs, fifth in walks and sixth in steals. The Yankees have made the playoffs in each one of his 20 seasons except 2008 and 2013, a great achievement in a game where so few teams make the post-season. His performance in the post-season puts him in the upper echelon of the all-time greats and with a legitimate claim to the title of the greatest shortstop ever to play the game.
If Jeter hadn’t been elected by the fans, he almost certainly would have been selected by the players to play in the game. As someone who played through the steroid era with unimpeachable character, he gave the game a clean face during some of its darkest moments. This ‘Attaboy’ has been given to other players in history. If you go look at the final season statistics of Cal Ripken Jr., Willie Mays, Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial, Al Kaline, Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Bench, you’ll see that they don’t come anywhere close to their career numbers. You may also see a gap in All-Star appearances before their final selection, though not always. You’ll see Hank Aaron selected to his ‘Attaboy’ in his second last season before he chose to play one more, and was finally left off the team. You’ll also see rare players, like Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente, who undoubtedly earned their All-Star appearances in their final seasons. You’ll also see Barry Larkin, who had a last season renaissance that made his selection easier.
The ‘Attaboy’ has led to some great moments, such as Alex Rodriguez moving over and letting Ripken play shortstop (he was elected to the game at third base but had been a shortstop for most of his career). Ripken then proceeded to hit a home-run and win the MVP of the 2001 game. It has led to standing ovations and tearful goodbyes. It has let the games brightest lights be extinguished on the biggest stage, regardless of team success.
When I say the selections were made ‘easier’ I mean more defensible to those people who expect the All-Star process to be a perfect meritocracy each year. Well, guess what? It’s not. It won’t be, as long as baseball keeps its asinine rule about every team having to be represented each season. And even then, it almost can’t be. There are too many teams and too many players for everyone to be happy. So why shouldn’t the games greatest stars be honoured? “But where do we draw the line?” people say. “Why should we honour Jeter and not Jim Thome in 2012? Or Paul Konerko this year?”
That’s a fair question. It really is. And that’s why we leave it up to a vote. The fans get what the fans want. The fans want to say goodbye to Number 2. That’s good enough for me.