Major League Baseball announced yesterday that former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be the manager for the 2012 National League All-Star Team. This is a nice honor for La Russa since he is no longer the manager of the Cardinals or associated with MLB. I know this is a Cardinals site, but for this post, I’m going to use the connection of La Russa’s managerial career being extended by one game to describe why I feel this adds to the nonsense that continues to surround the MLB All-Star game. There is one tie-in to the Cardinals however, and I begin with that after the jump.
I have no problem with La Russa accepting the invitation. Why wouldn’t he? We know he likes to be in the spotlight and he will certainly have it for weeks leading up to and during the game itself. My feeling is that the invitation from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig should have been more of an honorary coach than him taking over the team. My feeling is that the manager of the team should be invested in the outcome when the importance of winning carries consequences. When this game is over, La Russa goes back to whatever it is he will be doing and his managerial decisions before and during the game will not matter to him one bit. The only thing that would change my opinion is if he is working for the Cardinals in some capacity. I doubt this will be the case.
This will have some affect on the Cardinals. This whole episode is going to chip into new manager Mike Matheny‘s ability to stay out of the shadow of the man he is replacing. It will be hard enough without the circus that is going to follow La Russa leading up to the game. This is not to suggest that La Russa will use this to interfere with anything Matheny is doing as manager of the Cardinals. Not at all. But, I venture to guess that St. Louis media is not going to simply ask him how the All-Star game preparations are going when they speak. They will instinctively and wisely as journalists ask what his feelings are about how Matheny is running the team. Or La Russa will be asked how he thinks the team looks.
La Russa will most likely not comment on those questions, but they will not stop. In fact, can you imagine what will be written if the Cardinals are playing poor baseball leading up the All-Star game? Matheny doesn’t need that kind of extra pressure. Sure, the questions would have been eventually asked if La Russa was not involved in the All-Star game, but they wouldn’t be as frequent and certainly not as invasive on Matheny and his coaching staff (who La Russa intend on selecting to be in the dugout with him).
Onto the issues I have with MLB and how it handles the All-Star game. The most important thing is that the winner determines home-field advantage for the World Series. This is a big deal. Six of the last nine World Series champions held home-field advantage. It matters. Next, is the fact that MLB cannot decide whether this game is an exhibition game or a game which really matters. Remember all of this is because in 2002 the game ended in a tie when the managers (Joe Torre and Bob Brenly) were not paying attention to the number of pitchers available to them and the game went extra innings.
The answer for the tie-game was to award the winner home-field advantage for the World Series. Not, just expand the rosters or carry more pitchers but, ‘let’s make this game mean something.’ It has always meant something. It has been and should continue to be the one game where a fan in one part of the country can turn on free television and watch many of the game’s best players face each other in a baseball game they would otherwise not be able to see.
MLB has turned an exhibition game into something it shouldn’t be and that is the next issue. MLB has to decide if this is an exhibition game or a game with consequences. It cannot be both and right now it is. I’ll explain why. First, the last few seasons we have seen multiple top players back out of the game due to injury concerns. Some of them have been warranted. Others were merely because the player was not 100% and didn’t want to hurt themselves further because…it’s an exhibition game to them!
Yes, the players who play in the game play to win. But, do you think a player on a team in last place really cares about helping his league win the game so his rival team can benefit in the World Series? I’m guessing no. He is going to be more concerned with himself and rightly so. Why push it if they are a little beat up? Their paycheck is derived from the team they play 162 games for, not the league. If they get hurt or worsen a current injury it could affect their future as players. My point is if the game ‘matters’ then MLB needs to ensure the best players are on the field. The new collective bargaining agreement tries to address this, but in the end the same thing is going to happen. Players who are dinged up will not play. They will have to show up if named by the fans, but there is no way that the Major League Baseball Players Association is going to allow their players to be forced into getting on the field if they are not 100%. If this is a pure exhibition game this doesn’t matter.
Another thing that keeps this game resembling an exhibition is the changing of the general rules of the game. There is a DH now for both leagues instead of playing under the league rules of the host club. This doesn’t change in the World Series, so why does it in the All-Star game? Managers get to designate a player to have the ability to re-enter a game to replace an injured player (managers already had this privilege with catchers for obvious reasons). Lastly, managers just hold back players in case the game is going to go extra innings. Is that how any regular season or playoff game is handled?
Along the same lines, should the game be managed by someone who is no longer IN the game on a daily basis? I know La Russa will put every effort in to win this game. He is a competitor and that can never be taken away. But, will he know all of the players’ tendencies both on his team and on the one across the field? Maybe, but would he be as in touch as he could be were he managing daily? It is true; he could very well be working as an announcer for one of the outlets covering MLB and thus remain versed on many players. But, he won’t be involved in the day to day rigors of managing a team. I think this has a part to play in how he will make decisions on game day.
Most importantly, is he going to really care? In the end the outcome does not affect him at all. It affects the team who will be the National League representative. But, this is not an assured spot for the Cardinals. If the Milwaukee Brewers or Cincinnati Reds are leading the division by a long shot heading into the All-Star game does La Russa really worry about any decisions he has to make? If he was the actual manager of the Cardinals you know full well he would worry about his decisions no matter how many games back they were. Simply put, La Russa is not invested in the winner and if the winner carries an advantage in the World Series, he should be completely invested in the outcome.
So, I ask, is the MLB All-Star game supposed to be a pure exhibition game or a game which holds great weight to the eventual league champion? If it must be the later than Major League Baseball needs to do more to make the game evenly matched on the field and in the dugout. If it is a pure exhibition having Tony La Russa manage is a fantastic idea and if he makes any mistakes before or during the game then who cares? Right now it is both and that’s just not right.