All-Star Game still stuck in the middle

ST. LOUIS -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has been to one All-Star Game in his career, as a coach for the American League squad in 2002. Things began auspiciously when Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki sent his teammates bounding up the dugout steps with the most profane and rousing pep talk since John Belushi declared war on the Vernon Wormer regime.

"I remember Ichiro saying in broken English, 'Let's go whip somebody's ass,'" Manuel said. "That might sound corny or whatever, but when you go out to play the game, that's the state of mind you get in."

The evening ended in tatters when managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly ran out of pitchers, and fans at Milwaukee's Miller Park booed commissioner Bud Selig in response to a 7-7, 11-inning tie.

On a positive note, Barry Bonds did manage to arrive at the ESPYS in plenty of time the next day, thanks to an early exit and a private flight to Los Angeles.

This year, Manuel returns to the All-Star Game as manager of the National League team. As the Fox TV promotional slogan decrees, "This Time it Counts." But then, Manuel was fully aware of the ramifications last summer, when the All-Star Game lasted 15 innings, and Phillies closer Brad Lidge pitched the equivalent of a complete game in the Yankee Stadium bullpen.

If Manuel thinks it was stressful sitting on his couch in front of the TV with a cold beverage, imagine what the experience was like for Lidge, who warmed up a half dozen times and threw roughly 100 pitches.

"As a player, you want to be able to just relax at the All-Star Game, enjoy it and have fun for a couple of days," Lidge said in an interview last week. "That's the way it ought to be. Now the nature of that changed when they put more importance on the game.

"What's the point of having a guy warm up six times? You would never do that to a player if it was just an exhibition game, and risk an injury. If it's an exhibition game, you wouldn't have to worry about that. But it's not. And you do."

The 80th All-Star Game will take place Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, and in some ways, the event is still trying to determine what it wants to be when it grows up.

From a purely social standpoint, the Midsummer Classic is an opportunity for the game's elite players to take a break from the 162-game grind, mingle on a national stage and experience the thrill of a tip of the cap on national TV. With apologies to Bob Gibson and the late Don Drysdale, the competitive lines have blurred a bit with rising salaries and the advent of interleague play.

On the other hand, the stakes are higher than ever. Beginning in 2003, Major League Baseball gave the winning league in the All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series. In the six Octobers since, the home team has a 9-3 record in Games 1 and 2 of the Series. Going back to 1985, the team with home-field advantage has won 18 of 23 World Series.

Some of the most enduring moments in recent All-Star games had more to do with showmanship than valor in the heat of competition. Think back to Randy Johnson's entertaining encounters with John Kruk and Larry Walker, or Alex Rodriguez's heartwarming position swap with Cal Ripken Jr. in Seattle in 2001; they would have been grounds for expulsion from the premises in a "This Time it Counts" environment.

But how much intensity is too much? When Lidge jeopardizes his second half by throwing 100 pitches in the bullpen, or position players David Wright and J.D. Drew are preparing to pitch in the event their respective leagues run out of arms, has perspective taken a holiday?

How can a sport add a major twist to make an exhibition more relevant, mix in promotional gimmicks and try to keep everybody happy by ensuring the vast majority of players get a chance to play? That's a fence Major League Baseball is working very hard to straddle.

The fans certainly have their doubts. In an Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll released Sunday, 56 percent of fans said the All-Star Game result should not be used to determine which league's champion opens the World Series at home. A corresponding 42 percent said it should.

Players are also conflicted. Milwaukee left fielder Ryan Braun, who's rarely shy about expressing an opinion, is a fan of the concept.

"I like it," Braun said. "Almost every player here is with a team with an opportunity to get to the postseason. Ultimately, the goal is to get to the World Series. I think it would be nice to contribute to home-field advantage for your team."

Texas third baseman Michael Young is not a fan, and he's helped the American League gain home-field advantage in the World Series twice in the past three seasons.

At the 2006 game in Pittsburgh, Young's two-run triple off Trevor Hoffman in the ninth inning gave the American League a 3-2 victory over the National League. Last year, Young's sacrifice fly off Lidge at 1:38 a.m. clinched a 4-3 win for the AL.

"I personally don't think it's the right thing to do," Young said. "Home-field advantage in the World Series is a big deal. I think it's something that should be earned. That's tough to do on one game.

"Say you're in the World Series. You could have a guy who's a huge part of your team who wasn't in the All-Star Game. Now he has to spend three games at home in October instead of four because of a game he wasn't even in? I should not have had anything to do with who had home-field advantage in the World Series in '06."

No matter which side of the debate players land on, they're in universal accord that baseball's All-Star Game is superior to the other major sports as a spectator event. So why does it need extra incentive?

In an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on Monday, Selig said the All-Star format change was not a reaction to the 2002 tie in Milwaukee, but rather the culmination of a lengthy debate to inject more drama in the event. If that extra drama helped slow or even reverse declining TV ratings, well, so much the better.

Selig spoke of a conversation with longtime Cubs favorite Ron Santo, who told him something needed to be done to stem the tide of players leaving in the middle of games and showing a generally blasé attitude toward the All-Star Game. Those trends have been reversed, in the estimation of MLB.

"While it may be an exhibition game now in one sense of the word, it's one that has meaning and one the guys care about," Selig said in his radio interview. "And that's what we tried to do."

Selig has long maintained that some solutions are untenable. The old format of the leagues' alternating home-field advantage "wasn't exactly Einstein's theory of relativity," according to the commissioner. And to those observers who say baseball should simply award home-field advantage in the World Series to the pennant winner with the best record, MLB officials contend that logistical hurdles make that approach impossible.

In recent years, the selection process has taken on more intrigue than the event itself. The All-Star Game remains an egalitarian affair, with all 30 clubs assured of representation through a crazy quilt of fan, player and managerial input in the selection process.

As the Final Man Internet voting initiative gains steam, team promotional and marketing departments are outdoing themselves with their inventiveness. Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino went door-to-door last week with Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and appeared on billboards and in a TV commercial in the city. Lots of fans in San Francisco gritted their teeth when Victorino made it to St. Louis through fan balloting and Giants infielder Pablo Sandoval stayed home.

If the game is truly about winning and nothing more, should the Royals, Pirates and other perennial losers all have a token representative? And just how many innings should the truly elite All-Stars play?

"It puts the manager in a difficult position, because if you're playing to win, you obviously want Albert [Pujols] to play all nine innings," Braun said. "But we have four phenomenal first basemen on the National League team who all deserve an opportunity to play. I'm just glad I don't have to make those decisions."

The modern All-Star Game mindset is a world removed from the good old days. In the last All-Star Game in St. Louis, in 1966, the National League won 2-1 on Maury Wills' RBI single in the 10th inning.

Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey and Ron Santo played the entire game for the NL squad, and Tony Oliva and Frank and Brooks Robinson did the same for the American League. Only nine pitchers appeared in the game, and Denny McLain, Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal each pitched three innings.

Contrast that to last season, when Boston manager Terry Francona shoehorned Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez into the action for an out in the ninth inning while trying to give Mariano Rivera a heartwarming Yankee Stadium send-off in the Bronx.

It's been more challenging for managers to utilize their entire rosters since Baltimore fans nearly booed Cito Gaston out of Camden Yards in 1993 for his failure to use local favorite Mike Mussina. Now Manuel and AL manager Joe Maddon are entrusted with the responsibility of keeping players, fans and the media happy while making sure to win the darned game. Or else.

"It's a game to relax and have fun, but fun is like having a plain cake out there, and winning would be putting the icing on the cake," Manuel said. "That's the way I look at."

There's also a concept known as having one's cake and eating it too. It pretty much defines MLB's approach to the All-Star Game today.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail. Jayson Stark contributed to this story.