Before Paul Goldschmidt was a seven-time All-Star himself, he was a kid growing up in the Houston area, going to Astros games and voting for his favorite All-Stars: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, from that great generation of Astros players in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"The hard part was deciding how much of a homer you were going to be," Goldschmidt recalled Monday. "I remember going to the games and getting the pamphlets and poking the holes in them and turning them in. We loved voting for that and talking with our friends about who deserved it and who didn't."
The St. Louis Cardinals first baseman is still nostalgic about those blue-and-white paper ballots with perforated holes next to each player -- the National League players on one side, American League on the other. And it turns out he's not the only one.
"I'd grab a big stack, and the whole game I'd just be poking holes," France said.
Cole said he did the same.
"Oh, yeah, the little punch cards," said McNeil, who also insists he never let his affinity for the Los Angeles Dodgers affect his voting. "I don't think I did, just because I knew a lot about baseball when I was younger, so I think I voted correctly."
Correctly. That's the debate that still rages on, nearly 90 years after the first All-Star Game was played: What makes an All-Star?
The players, of course, now get to relive those childhood memories since they are part of the All-Star voting process, choosing the backups after the fans select the nine position player starters. There are statistics to consider, advanced metrics to consume and personal preferences to factor in.
Some take their voting responsibilities very seriously.
"It's tough," Goldschmidt said. "WAR is kind of encompassing, but I try to look at a few different things. Offensively, you can look at OPS, try to find stuff where they adjust the ballpark, like OPS+ or weighted runs created plus. ... You can spend days and days doing it, so I tried to take into account the baserunning and defense. It's tough when you can only vote for two guys at each position. That's what makes this so special: You know how hard it is to get here."
And every player has a personal preference when it comes to qualifying statistics. McNeil, who is one of just 21 qualified hitters with an average of .300 or better at the All-Star break, pays close attention to that mark.
"I'm an average hitter, so I love guys who hit for average," he said. "Even if the power isn't quite there, it's extremely hard to hit for average in the game nowadays. I was talking to [Miami Marlins first-time All-Star] Garrett Cooper and told him, 'You got my vote. I love seeing what you're doing right now; you're hitting over .300, you're putting together some great at-bats.' That's huge for a team."
Maybe McNeil is on to something; 15 of the 21 players hitting .300 made the All-Star squads, on the original roster or as replacements. It isn't an all-encompassing stat like WAR, and it's a little old school, but .300 is still a number that players respect -- especially in a year when the overall major league average is just .242.
Still, it's not so easy to just say, "Pick the players having the best seasons." Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman, despite ranking third in the majors among position players in WAR, didn't make the roster, even after all the extra additions.
"It stinks for him because of how valuable a player he is," Goldschmidt said of his teammate. "I think the offensive numbers just stick out a lot more. I had no idea his WAR was so high, but I know he's been a great player. There's no right answer."
But one thing nearly all the players agreed upon: Selections should be based on the best performances this year, not as a lifetime achievement award.
"It's the 2022 All-Star Game," McNeil said. "A player's career kind of ties into it, but it should be the best year."
But what it means to have the "best" year can be complicated when sometimes it feels like everyone eventually gets in. Consider all the injury and pitcher replacements, plus the requirement that each team gets a representative and some of the other quirks (like Atlanta Braves part-time catcher/DH William Contreras earning an All-Star start for the injured Bryce Harper, rather than, say, Freddie Freeman or Pete Alonso). This year, we ended up with 81 All-Stars, a number that also included 37 first-timers.
That seems high -- but it turns out that it's not a record. Last year, there were 42 first-time All-Stars. Nine of the 10 highest totals of All-Star rookies have come since 2010 (1988 and 2003 are also tied for 10th), with the exception being the first contest, in 1933.
This view that current-year value trumps career value or name recognition has evolved over the past two decades in both how players feel and the way fans have voted for starters. Previously, many of the same players would get voted in as starters year after year -- no matter what kind of season they were having. Rod Carew started 15 All-Star Games -- sure, many of those when he was winning batting titles, but some at the end of his career when he was no longer an elite first baseman. Wade Boggs started 11 All-Star Games in a row at third base for the American League. Cal Ripken Jr. started 16 in a row. Once you were an All-Star, you were an All-Star for the rest of your career.
There's actually a simple way to quantify this. Starting with 1970, the first year that punch ballots were distributed at ballparks, I added up the number of previous All-Star starts (not appearances) for each player in the lineup, not including the starting pitcher.
The most "veteran" lineup in each league is the 1972 National League team, with a total of 46 All-Star starts, and the 1999 American League roster, with 48. Take a look:
1972 National League
C -- Johnny Bench (4)
1B -- Lee May (1)
2B -- Joe Morgan (1)
3B -- Joe Torre (6)
SS -- Don Kessinger (4)
LF -- Willie Stargell (3)
CF -- Willie Mays (14)
RF -- Henry Aaron (13)
1999 American League
C -- Ivan Rodriguez (7)
1B -- Jim Thome (2)
2B -- Roberto Alomar (8)
3B -- Cal Ripken Jr. (16)
SS -- Nomar Garciaparra (1)
LF -- Kenny Lofton (4)
CF -- Ken Griffey Jr. (8)
RF -- Manny Ramirez (1)
DH -- Rafael Palmeiro (1)
Sure, in both lineups, one or two players with long runs skew things a bit, but they further the point. In 1972, Mays was hitting .233 with four home runs. The fans still voted him in. Compare that to the fans' philosophy more recently, even with future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, who has started just once since leaving the Cardinals in 2011.
Gone are the bloated start totals of the past. In 2021, the American League total was just 16 career All-Star starts, with Salvador Perez leading the way with his sixth. The National League total was 14, and seven of the nine position players were first-time starters.
It's fair to suggest that this sea change is due to the young talent in the game, but it also speaks to how hard it is to stay on top in this sport in 2022. Perhaps Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rafael Devers, both making their second career starts, will be voted in for the next decade. But even Dodgers first baseman Freeman, who started the past three All-Star Games and only made the team this year as a replacement, said he hasn't done enough to warrant automatic selection.
"I only have 12 seasons," he laughed. "Maybe after 20 seasons, I'll have done enough for that."
MLB has fixed this in one small way, adding "legends" spots, chosen by the commissioner's office, that this year saw Pujols and Miguel Cabrera join the squad -- kind of the 2022 version of the fans voting in an aging Willie Mays.
"I love that legacy thing," Yanks hurler Cole said. "That's amazing. I've played against Miggy a long time. To sit with him on the bus and chat with him was pretty cool, because usually we're just talking in passing on the field. Unless you're [Justin Verlander], at the end of your career maybe you aren't putting up electric first halves to get you voted in on merit, but there's so much knowledge that those types of players can inflict on some of the younger players, the first-time players in particular, meeting some of their heroes. That circle of information is only going to be good for the product down the line."
And of course, there will always be an element of fandom to All-Star voting. Certainly in the high vote totals that pour in from fan bases like Atlanta, New York or Boston every summer -- and, it turns out, within the players' ranks, as well.
Mets slugger Alonso described his philosophy simply enough: "I voted for myself and all my teammates."
Freeman laughed at that. "To be honest with you, I voted for all Dodgers," he said. "I promise you, we all voted for our teammates."