Play to win or don't play at all

Answering a couple of e-mail messages while wishing we could just skip spring training and get right to Opening Day ...

    I personally think this All-Star Game situation was not thought out particularly well.

    Any game in which the All-Stars are more likely to risk injury is goofy. Is it worth getting hurt breaking up a double play just so your league can have home-field advantage? Who wants their starting pitcher used up for five innings when their services to their other team might be more valuable?

    The whole idea is nonsensical. The game is an exhibition and it should remain so. (I was not horribly bothered by the tie, so you can take that into account as part of my rant.)

    Thanks for listening! Just wondering your opinion on this portion of the issue.

    Andrew J. Haider
    Gurnee, Ill.

Well, here's something to take into account as part of my rant: I have very close to zero interest in exhibitions.

Seriously. Given a choice between watching fifth graders play a game that counts on a weed-infested field without a fence and watching major leaguers play a game that nobody cares about, I'll take the fifth graders. Every time.

See, here's the thing. As a fan, it wouldn't really bother me if the All-Star Game was simply abolished. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the All-Star Game might be your only chance all season to see some of the very best baseball players in the world. Especially if they didn't play for the Yankees or the Dodgers.

But now, thanks to the wonders of satellite technology, most of us can see, for a relative pittance, any player that we like, scores of times each season. You want to see the Devil Rays play 50 games? Congratulations. Not only are you the charter member of a new club, but you can see the Devil Rays play 50 games. More, probably. And you can do it from the comfort of your own sofa.

There is, of course, another appealing thing about the All-Star Game: You get to see all those great players together.

Fair enough. But here's a question ... If the great players aren't trying to play at their greatest, then what's the appeal?

In the NFL's Pro Bowl, the primary goals are to have fun and avoid getting hurt. In the NBA's and NHL's All-Star Games, the primary objective is to have fun, which generally translates into scoring oodles of points or goals. No defense allowed. And guess what? Nobody cares much about those games, because they don't have what makes most of us watch sports. Drama.

But the wonderful thing about baseball's All-Star Game is that most of the players do try their best. In baseball's All-Star Game, the hitters try to hit the ball as hard as they can, the pitchers try to make the best pitches they can, and the fielders try to make the best plays they can.

Which is why we shouldn't worry too much about Commissioner Bud's new-look All-Star Game somehow subverting the integrity -- what's left of it, anyway -- of the pennant races. Nothing's really going to change, except that the pitchers might throw two or three innings instead of one or two. And the Randy Winns and Robert Ficks of the world might wind up on the bench, never having gotten their token plate appearances.

Which is not so great for Randy Winn and the Robert Fick or their many fans, but is pretty nice for the rest of us.

Look, if some guy breaks his kneecap in the All-Star Game and it winds up costing his team a shot at the World Series, there won't be anybody more bummed than yours truly. But you know, guys get hurt all the time. They get hurt playing, they get hurt wrestling with their kids, they get hurt slicing bagels, they get hurt in bar fights (oops! you're not supposed to know about that!) ... and yes, every decade or so, somebody's going to get hurt in the All-Star Game. And as a fan, I'm willing to accept that.

What we are going to lose are some of the ... well, the antics that occasionally spice things up. John Kruk batting against Randy Johnson with his helmet turned backward. Rip Sewell throwing eephus pitches to Ted Williams. Stuff like that. And the antics will be missed.

But antics are for exhibitions, or games nobody cares about. I think that if we're going to have an All-Star Game, the players should play to win. If they don't want to play to win -- and we're hearing rumblings that they don't -- then let's get rid of the damn thing and just give everybody a three-day vacation.

    Rob, since it's mid-January and quiet in the baseball world, how about a projection on the fate of the 2003 Rangers?

    They were five games worse than their Pythagorean record says that they should have been (72-90 vs. 77-85). They've lost Pudge, Catalanotto, and Rogers, but improved the bullpen, added John Thomson, and should have 130 healthy games from Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett.

    I figure that the Rangers should be interesting to watch, if only for the development of the hitting trio of Mench, Blalock and Teixeira, plus to see if Benoit and Lewis can put it together and become solid starting pitchers…but what do you think of their prospects this year?

    .500? Another 90-loss season? On the fringes of the playoffs?

When you say 130 healthy games from Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett, you mean combined, right?

As for the Rangers' fate, I won't be shocked if they win half their games in 2003. But that's a tough division, and I don't think the exciting young hitters will be nearly enough to balance the scary young pitchers (all young pitchers are scary). So I will be somewhat surprised if they don't finish last again.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.