If you’ve never been to a baseball All-Star Game, please understand what it is … and what it never can be. It’s a social gathering, a carnival of gee-whiz fandom, a celebration of an industry’s prosperity. It’s a chance for Chris Berman to STILL get away with shouting, “Back-back-back-back-back!” like a clucking duck, and an opportunity for Pete Rose to take part in hometown festivities despite his lifetime ban.
For a participant, it’s a 36-hour mind blitz that involves an interview circus in a hotel ballroom, an overcrowded batting-practice session, a Gillette Home Run Derby presented by Head & Shoulders, a late-night gala, a parade to the stadium, a red carpet into the stadium, more media, and, when they get around to it, a ballgame.
“It’s an honor to spend time with other players that you don’t normally get to spend time with,” said Buster Posey, representing the Giants for the third time this week in Cincinnati. “It’s a fun couple of days for the fans. It’s something that goes by pretty quickly from my experience. You try to enjoy it.”
Hear anything in there about beating the mucus out of the American League, thus securing home-field advantage for the National League in the World Series? You don’t because, honestly, no player is thinking about it, not even Posey, whose team has been to the Fall Classic three times the last five years and won all three.
What the All-Star Game is not — and shouldn’t try to be — is a serious, balls-out competition. Bud Selig tried to establish it as such, and his successor as Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, has no intention of purging the World Series link: the winner locks in Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 for its eventual league champion. “It played an important role in making it the most important All-Star game in sports,” Manfred said proudly. In truth, it’s the dumbest All-Star Game in sports, because unlike just-for-fun exhibitions in the NFL, NBA and NHL, this show is masquerading as something it’s not. The event is too ceremonial and political to carry vast significance. And, yes, significance is weighty when you consider home teams are 65-44 in World Series games since 1995. The Giants may have clinched all three times on the road, but they positioned themselves for celebrations in Kansas City, Detroit and Texas by going a collective 6-1 at AT&T Park.
No one is more responsible for that dominance than the manager, Bruce Bochy, who is Hall of Fame-bound because he has mastered how to take very good clubs and maximize them into champions in October. But the other day, Bochy abused one of his Series-winning perks — filling out the final spots on the NL roster — by having a little too much fun in picking Madison Bumgarner.
And, by extension, rejecting Clayton Kershaw.
As you know, Kershaw might go down as the greatest of all arms from this golden age of starting pitching. As you know, he’s the reigning league MVP and Cy Young Award winner and author of a historic five-year run. As you know, he had a brief rough patch early this season but since has become his usual unhittable self, leading the majors in strikeouts and posting a 1.53 earned-run average and 87 whiffs over his last nine starts. As you know, any manager who wants to win an All-Star Game puts Kershaw on the staff — period, exclamation point, smiling emoji — and ignores that he was rejected in a vote by players who often base ballots on April results and don’t do thorough analysis. As you know, Kershaw is as likely to nail down a 1-2-3 inning or two as anyone else on an NL staff loaded with remarkable names: Zach Greinke, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom among them.
But as you also know, Kershaw pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, eternal arch-rival of the Giants.
And while Bochy is an honorable man, he also seemed engaged in some playful gamesmanship in omitting Kershaw from the staff. Consider his decision process. First he named his own horse, Bumgarner, who may have been Paul Bunyan last October but has performed less consistently than Kershaw in every category this season but win-loss record, which isn’t relevant given Kershaw’s lack of run suppport. Then Bochy named A.J. Burnett and Michael Wacha, neither of whom needed to be on the team and neither of whom is remotely close to Kershaw’s level. Then, as he explained why Bumgarner and Giants infielder Joe Panik were two of his selections, Bochy made a comment that isn’t resonating well in L.A. and other circles.
“That’s the great thing about managing an All-Star Game. You can cover some of your players,” he said.
He went on to describe Bumgarner as a “no-brainer” pick and vowed to “do all I can to make sure he pitches,” an outing that may come at the expense of a pitcher whose 2015 numbers are better.
In the process, Bochy practiced favortism toward the team he manages, which may delight his players and Giants fans but also violates the spirit of a “meaningful” All-Star Game. Bochy isn’t supposed to “cover” his own players. He isn’t supposed to “make sure” Bumgarner pitches when, in his last two starts, his ace was roughed up in Washington and labored a bit Friday night in 5²⁄³ innings against the woeful Phillies. Bochy is mandated to choose the best roster, and any staff without Kershaw isn’t giving the NL its best chance to win.
Next, Kershaw was emptied into a five-man bin known as the final Fan Vote. From there, cyberstuffing took over, which isn’t the novelty in California that it is in the heartland. St. Louis right-hander Carlos Martinez, also deserving, won the balloting, and the unthinkable was real.
Clayton Kershaw, he of the 160 strikeouts and 2.85 ERA, did not make the All-Star team. Yet Bumgarner, whose 3.33 ERA looks bloated in this golden era, still is in the running with two others to start Tuesday night, with Bochy in position to diss yet another Dodger if he starts MadBum over Greinke (a mind-blowing 1.39 ERA and 8-2 record). Cole, 13-3 and 2.30 for Pittsburgh, also is worthier. This isn’t to discredit the Herculean 2014 autumn of Bumgarner, but between Bochy’s year-after blinders and the Fox commercials that featured MadBum weeks before his official selection, it feels like the fix was in for the Giants and for carryover starpower.
Which is fascinating, because no one has more starpower than Kershaw, who should be showcased in the post-Jeter era as a sterling role model as well as a dynamic performer. When told that Bochy had omitted him, Kershaw expressed no ill will. “I’m fine with Boch. He’s great,” he told reporters.
Pressed after losing the Fan Vote, he said, “It’s not up for me to decide. It doesn’t matter what I think.”
He’s moving on. Should Kershaw be named an injury replacement, he should snub those who snubbed him. His teammates certainly aren’t happy. “Best pitcher on the planet,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said.
“His peripheral numbers are probably the best in the game,” Greinke said.
No one would care about these issues if the game was merely an exhibition, as it should be. But when the result counts, politics and rivalry biases shouldn’t enter the fray. As it was, this All-Star Game became dubious when Kansas City fans tried to elect the entire 25-man roster of the Royals, or so it seemed, which required Manfred to cancel 65 million votes. We thought that would be the event’s defining shame.