Monday, June 30, 2008

On All-Star Selections

I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree with Joe Sheehan, of Baseball Prospectus.

Mr. Sheehan's take on the All-Star game is that the starters at each position should be the established, demonstrated best at their positions, as demonstrated over several years. No flashes in the pan for him, no first-half wonders, no good guys who've kicked it into overdrive, no nuthin'. Just the proven best, even if their performance this year isn't quite up to the level of some other guys who are hitting the bejesus out of the ball this time around.

It's an interesting take, and one with a lot to recommend it. On the other hand, there's something to it that doesn't quite jibe for me. Maybe it's the underlying notion of wait your turn, the spectacle of All Star Game voting as some sort of vast Confucian meritocracy where you can only advance through proper forms and examinations and the timely deaths of those ahead of you.

And that, to me, isn't what the All-Star Game is about. Yes, I want the best at every position, but at the same time I want the game to reflect some of the magic and unpredictability of baseball itself. I want to see the guys having that one magical year get rewarded because they've already rewarded us, as fans, by doing things we never would have expected them to do. I want to see the career year guy have his moment in the sun on the big stage, so he can tell his grandkids that he was there with the A-Rods and Pujolses and, for that one night, he absolutely belonged there.

This, then, is where the game of baseball and the sport of baseball intersect and conflict. The sport dictates the cold-hearted calculation of who'll give your side the best chance to win. The game suggests a blunter edge to Occam's Razor; which players' inclusion will make the game most enjoyable to watch for both on-field and off-field reasons?

For all the immense benefits of sophisticated performance metrics, there remains a cloak of myth and legend that must remain wrapped around the game for it to maintain its appeal. By all means, let's get better player evaluation metrics in place. Let's get to a place where rosters are built more efficiently, where worthy players get a shot based on merit, where we have fewer young arms shredded by ignorance and the insane desire for gumption. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there are times when it's the least likely guys, the Howard Ehmkes and Sandy Amoroses and Marty Bystroms of the world that give the game it's most memorable moments, its deepest and truest magic.

So by all means, let's run the best guys out there for the All-Star Game. But let's save a few spots for the guys having magical years, for those roman candle careers that are just as much a part of the game, for the unlikely faces we're cheering even harder for because familiarity with the Jeff Kents of the world does breed that little bit of, if not contempt, then at least ennui.

So maybe he shouldn't start, but let's save a place for Ryan Ludwick on the bench, and let him get an inning in. Save a spot in the American League pen for George Sherrill, because he's living the dream to the fullest and doing it as well as could be imagined. Maybe twenty years from now, scholars of the game will look at the Ludwick vs Sherrill AB in the archives of the sport and wonder what the hell those guys were doing there, but right now, we understand. We know. And we'll cheer, no matter how it comes out.
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