This time it DOESN'T count ... and that's a good thing for the All-Star Game

Home-field advantage? Out. Cash rewards and a good time? In. After more than a decade of trying to turn the Midsummer Classic into a serious competition, MLB is making the All-Star Game fun again. ESPN Illustration

MIAMI -- Rob Manfred's legacy as Major League Baseball commissioner will ultimately be shaped by the answers to some thought-provoking questions. The game will look markedly different if and when pitch clocks, robot umpires and international expansion become part of Manfred's quest to broaden baseball's fan base and have it resonate with a younger audience.

Against that big-picture backdrop, the stakes of an exhibition game in the middle of July seem almost like a housekeeping chore. But MLB takes its All-Star Game very seriously. As Manfred strives to embrace the future, he is showing that it's possible to make a statement by letting go of the past.

After 13 years of trying to inject the All-Star Game with a sense of urgency by awarding the winning league home-field advantage in the World Series, MLB is taking a step back in time. The "This Time It Counts" era is no more, and Tuesday night's game at Marlins Park will be played primarily for league pride.

With no gimmicks or catchy slogans to fall back on, MLB is hoping that fans tune in for a glimpse of Aaron Judge's mammoth power and Cody Bellinger's sweet uppercut swing -- not because the results in Miami could tilt the balance of the World Series.

Since the debut of the "This Time It Counts" initiative in 2004, 10 of 13 teams with home-field advantage have won the World Series. That stat alone helped convince baseball's decision-makers that it was time for a change. Under the revised format, the team with the best regular-season record will now have home-field advantage in the Series.

"Everything has a shelf life," Manfred told ESPN.com. "It's something we have probably been too slow to recognize sometimes in the game. What people came to understand is home-field advantage is really significant in the World Series. It's probably the cherry on top of that ice cream sundae. The Cubs won 103 games last year, and they weren't home either weekend. It just doesn't seem quite right, does it?

"It helped put focus on the All-Star Game, but the negatives seemed to be of growing importance. We came to the conclusion there were other ways to keep the players motivated and keep the All-Star Game as the best all-star game in professional sports."

Take cash, for starters. The players from the winning team will receive $20,000 each, while the losers will take home nothing. That isn't a lot of dough for, say, Clayton Kershaw, who'll make an average of $1 million for each of his projected 33 starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers this season. But it might get the juices flowing for some players in a country-club-side-wager sort of way.

Regardless, the change appears to be popular with players, fans and purists, many of whom struggled with the contradictions of linking home-field advantage to a midseason exhibition.

One of those players, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, inadvertently created a stir when he suggested that he grooved a pitch to Derek Jeter as a goodwill gesture during the Captain's final All-Star appearance in 2014. Wainwright, a three-time All-Star, isn't making the trip to Miami, but he's glad that the game has come to its senses and dispensed with the "This Time It Counts" initiative.

"It was ridiculous," Wainwright said. "It was a horrible rule. If [the game counted], we would have Clayton Kershaw throwing five innings and Max Scherzer throwing four, but you just can't do that. Teams don't want their guys to throw more than one or two innings. Or maybe a guy has a sore wrist, and they don't want him taking three at-bats.

"They based home-field advantage in the playoffs on something when your very best players aren't playing all nine innings. I didn't understand that. The whole system was really flawed, in my opinion. I think they did the right thing switching it back."

SURVEY PAST AND present All-Stars, and they generally agree that there's a balance to be struck between putting on a game face and reveling in the All-Star Game perks, which range from collecting autographs and riding in Corvette Stingray convertibles at the pregame parade to landing front-row seats for the Home Run Derby.

MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark, a 2001 All-Star with the Detroit Tigers, thinks World Series home-field advantage was never the motivational force it was made out to be. "I was fortunate enough to play in the All-Star Game and I saw the conversations in the clubhouse and the dugout, and these games always count,'' Clark said. "Whether you're a pitcher or a hitter, you don't want to embarrass yourself. You want to perform well for yourself, your family, your team and your league. That's not the headline now. But the truth is, the focus has always been the same and will continue to be the same.''

Washington's Bryce Harper applauded this year's change and said he favors the new World Series home-field advantage rule. Several other stars in Miami said they don't expect the tone of the game to change noticeably under the revised setup.

"I don't think it's going to change the way guys compete,'' Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel said. "I don't think a guy is going to try and hit a ball farther or throw a ball harder just because home-field advantage in the World Series is on the line. As professional athletes, we want to win every game we play, so I don't see why this game would be any different.''

Baseball has always grappled with how much the Midsummer Classic should matter. Old-timers like to reminisce about Warren Giles' barging into the clubhouse and firing up the troops with a pregame pep talk during his tenure as National League president from 1951-1969. A year after Giles' retirement, Pete Rose took that inspirational message to heart when he bowled over AL catcher Ray Fosse in a violent collision to score the winning run.

The box score from that 1970 All-Star Game at Riverfront Stadium reflects a bygone era. The two starting pitchers, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver, each threw three innings, while AL shortstop Luis Aparicio and left fielder Carl Yastrzemski logged six at-bats apiece.

The most recent starting pitcher to go three innings in an All-Star Game was Atlanta's Greg Maddux in 1994, and the most recent American League starter to achieve the feat was Kansas City's Bret Saberhagen in 1987. As the years passed, baseball did everything but hand out participation trophies to make sure every player appeared in the game and fans got to see their team's star in action.

Disaster struck in 2002, in commissioner Bud Selig's hometown of Milwaukee, when All-Star managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly ran out of pitchers. The game ended in an embarrassing 7-7, 11-inning tie, and Selig was photographed in an awkward pose -- hands raised with an expression that fell somewhere between beseeching and bewildered -- that set him up for considerable ridicule.

Manfred, who was working as baseball's chief labor lawyer at the time, defends the decision to link the game to World Series home-field advantage, even though he was in favor of jettisoning it last winter.

"At the time we went to 'This Time It Counts,' it was important in terms of keeping the All-Star Game as a really premier entertainment product," Manfred said. "I know some people like to be critical of leagues when they're responsive to their broadcast partners. But the fact of the matter is our broadcast partners, especially for our jewel events, are really important to us. The All-Star Game is an important part of marketing the game, and Fox really felt this change was important in terms of making the game competitive.

"Sometimes change sends a message that's important. If you go back 15-16 years, we had guys playing a couple of innings and leaving the clubhouse -- things you just don't see anymore. 'This Time It Counts' was part of a communication to the players as to how important the All-Star Game is to our game in the big picture."

All-Star Game rosters have changed from 30 to 34 to 32 since the 2002 tie in Milwaukee, and Manfred said diligent pregame pitching plans mapped out with respective managers should prevent the kind of nightmare scenario that nearly transpired at Yankee Stadium in 2008, when the game lasted 15 innings and David Wright and J.D. Drew came perilously close to coming in to pitch.

That said, Manfred is keeping an open mind. He doesn't rule out the possibility of the All-Star Game one day adopting the tiebreaker rule employed in the World Baseball Classic, in which runners are stationed on first and second bases at the start of the 11th inning.

"People were pretty critical of us using that in the minor leagues, but the fact of the matter is, if you saw it in the WBC games, it was pretty exciting," Manfred said. "For an exhibition game, would we talk about that? Yeah, we'd talk about that. Would we do it? I don't know.

"Given that the All-Star Game is not a regular-season game, it's a lot easier to talk about rules that might be used specifically for that game."

WHILE "THIS TIME It Counts" was meant to boost TV ratings, its impact was questionable at best. The declining audience for the All-Star Game reflects the changing viewing habits of the American public -- and the myriad choices available to anyone with free time and a remote button.

At its peak in 1976, the All-Star Game attracted an audience of 36 million people on ABC. That was good for a 27.1 rating and a 53 share. Last year on Fox, the game drew an all-time low of 8.7 million viewers, good for a 5.4 rating and a 10 share.

The long-range demographics are also worrisome. In 2016, the median age for the All-Star viewing audience was 54.6 years old.

That viewer erosion has taken place despite MLB's efforts to reach every market. Players from all 30 teams are represented, and fans continue to pick the starting lineups and complete the rosters through the Final Vote.

"It was ridiculous. It was a horrible rule. If [the game counted], we would have Clayton Kershaw throwing five innings and Max Scherzer throwing four, but you just can't do that. ... The whole system was really flawed in my opinion. I think they did the right thing switching it back."
Adam Wainwright

The All-Star Game's appeal as a signature event has really been tempered by a changing media landscape. Fans can splurge for the MLB Extra Innings package and see Judge dent the bleachers seven days a week, and interleague play has blurred the lines between the NL and AL.

Nevertheless, MLB's All-Star Game continues to outdraw the exhibitions of the other three major professional sports, all of which have struggled to develop identities for their all-star games through the years.

"The NFL has its struggles with the Pro Bowl," said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant in New York. "Nobody wants to get injured. The NBA All-Star Game is a great offensive show, but nobody wants to play defense. They're trying to address that. The NHL has come up with an interesting approach with 3-on-3 hockey and faster-paced games, and that seems to have captured people's fancy.

"The thing about the Major League Baseball All-Star Game is it's always been legitimate. They're playing a real game, with people sliding and hitting and playing defense. Given its longevity, it's always been the mark against which other leagues have modeled their all-star games.

"The idea that it 'counts' for something never really factored into why people watch in the first place. They tune in for a legitimate competition with the top players facing each other in configurations you've never seen before."

WILL AN UNDETERMINED player rise to the occasion with an act of spontaneous theater at the 2017 All-Star Game, now that World Series home-field advantage is no longer riding on the outcome? History says an unscripted moment of fun is always just a plot twist away.

Randy Johnson, the quintessential snarler, let his hair down in the 1993 Midsummer Classic, when he unleashed a fastball over John Kruk's head all the way to the backstop. Kruk induced raucous laughter by feigning heart palpitations before flailing at a third strike and returning to the dugout. In 1997, Colorado right fielder Larry Walker produced an encounter for the ages when he turned around and batted from the right side, rather than face a Big Unit slider left-handed.

During the 2002 tie in Milwaukee, Minnesota's Torii Hunter climbed the wall and robbed Barry Bonds of a home run, and Bonds responded by lifting Hunter in the air in a display of interleague bonding. Warren Giles would not have been pleased.

The tone changed in recent years, when players who strove to entertain found themselves on the defensive. In 2012, Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander appeared to be undermining the "This Time It Counts" ethic when he talked about lighting up the radar gun and giving the crowd a show after he gave up five first-inning runs in an 8-0 loss. Last year, David Ortiz engaged in a playfully confusing give-and-take with the late Jose Fernandez, who suggested that he was going to throw a cookie as a parting gift for the retiring Big Papi.

Wainwright was pilloried for failing to take the game seriously enough and showing disrespect to Jeter by implying that the Yankees' captain needed a helping hand for his first-inning double in 2014.

Wainwright, who told reporters he wanted to give Jeter a couple of "pipe shots," maintains to this day that he was playing to win, meant no disrespect to Jeter and was simply guilty of a bad choice of words. But he also understands that the All-Star Game is an exhibition, and some of the fondest memories that players take from the event are only peripherally related to baseball.

"It's a fun experience," Wainwright said. "You want to sit there and talk shop with Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. A couple of years in a row, I played cards with Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. I watched Michael Cuddyer do magic tricks. I rode in the parade. The game is fun, too. But it's really just validation for all the hard work you've done to get there."

As Wainwright's peers assemble in Miami for this year's game, they're freed from the restraints of a flawed system and at liberty to have all the fun they want. The fans' response, as always, will be the ultimate barometer of whether Manfred and baseball's decision-makers made the right call.