Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Little League solution to an All-Star problem

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fans could only shake their heads in disbelief. So commissioner Bud Selig decided the exhibition needed to become a high-stakes showdown with home-field advantage in the World Series on the line.

But Selig's solution hasn't addressed the real problem with the All-Star Game, as we saw Tuesday night.

A two-run homer by Alfonso Soriano cut the American League's lead to 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Later, with two outs and the bases loaded, Albert Pujols – perhaps the game's best player – never got a chance to hit.

This year's Midsummer Classic should never have ended that way.

And once again, fans – and Pujols – could only shake their heads in disbelief.

NL manager Tony La Russa shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame. The new rules have essentially made it mandatory for teams to save at least one player for the late innings and Pujols' ability to play several defensive positions made him an ideal candidate.

• La Russa could have used Pujols to pinch-hit for Aaron Rowand (who flied out to end the game) and played Pujols in the outfield.

• La Russa could have used Pujols to pinch-hit for Orlando Hudson (who walked to load the bases), then moved Freddy Sanchez to second base and put Pujols at third.

• La Russa could have used Pujols to pinch-hit for Derrek Lee (who walked to put men on first and second) and then sent Pujols in to play his normal position.

But there's just one problem. Using Pujols would've left the NL without any more position players if the game went to extra innings.

Under the new All-Star rules, that's a no-no. An empty bench could lead to a tie. So Pujols remained in the dugout as the game ended.

It's time to look again at what could be done differently to make the All-Star Game more compelling – as a Pujols at-bat against Francisco Rodriguez surely would have been.

First of all, the designated hitter should be used in every All-Star Game. If that were the case, Pujols would have been in the National League's starting lineup.

The point of the game is to showcase the entire galaxy of stars the game has to offer, but expanding the rosters isn't the answer. More players will only mean more substitutions – and fewer at-bats for the biggest stars.

No, the best way to avoid the running-out-of-players snafu is to go back to the game's roots and take a page out of the youth baseball rule book, where a starting player can be reinserted into his original spot in the batting order after he's been taken out.

What a great idea! When we played baseball as kids, the object was to win the game, but also to give everyone a chance to play.

That's exactly the approach Major League Baseball should take with the All-Star Game. Managers can do their best to get everyone in the game … and then if they run out of players, the best ones can go back in.

Imagine how that could have changed the outcome Tuesday in San Francisco.

Instead of looking like a helpless captain on a sinking ship, La Russa could have used some of his legendary baseball smarts to juggle his lineup in any number of ways without worrying about the defensive ramifications in extra innings.

In fact, had those rules been in place here's what the bottom of the ninth might have looked like:

No. 6 hitter Matt Holliday strikes out. One out.

No. 7 hitter Brian McCann flies out to shortstop. Two outs.

No. 8 hitter Trevor Hoffman is replaced by pinch-hitter Dmitri Young, who singles.

No. 9 hitter Alfonso Soriano hits a two-run homer to cut the AL's lead to 5-4.

No. 1 hitter J.J. Hardy walks.

With the tying run on base and the winning run now at the plate, AL manager Jim Leyland replaces J.J. Putz with Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez.

La Russa calls on Pujols to pinch-hit for Derrek Lee. Or … he's able to reinsert the player who started the game batting in the No. 2 spot.

Barry Bonds.

No matter how you feel about the man who would be home-run king, seeing him hit in the bottom of the ninth, in San Francisco, against one of the hardest-throwing closers in baseball would have been thrilling to watch.

That's the point of the All-Star Game. To give the fans the best possible showcase, not to play for a contrived prize.

Sometimes, it just takes going back to basics to get things right.

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