The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals completed one of the greatest comeback stories in Major League Baseball history by winning the World Series last week.
It never should have happened. And I don't mean because an overworked Texas Rangers bullpen couldn't hold two late-inning leads in Game 6.
First: All credit to the Cardinals. On August 25 they were 10 games behind in the National League Central race and 10 ½ games behind in the wildcard but surged back to qualify for the postseason on the final day of the regular season. They beat the favored Philadelphia Phillies in the first playoff round after trailing two games to one. Then they knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers, the team that bested them for the division crown. In all three decisive games, it must be noted out of fairness, St. Louis won on the road.
Then, facing elimination against Texas in Game 6, the '11 Cardinals became this generation's '86 Mets by overcoming a two-run deficit in the ninth inning after being down to their last strike -- and then overcame another two-run hole in the tenth inning. Add that to the early two-run deficit they overcame in Game 7. It's possible we might never see a baseball story quite like this in our lifetimes.
We're talking about a World Series in which a future Hall of Famer became only the third player ever to homer thrice in one Series game -- but did not even figure in the MVP voting. In which the player who did win the MVP nearly helped his team to lose by committing a glaring error that led to a key run in Game 6. In which one manager had a failure to communicate with his bullpen coach. Twice. In the same inning. And in which Fox broadcasters apparently decided the World Series was not exciting enough on its own and had to be spiced up with dugout impressions from a pitcher in the middle of Game 5.
Even though the Cardinals showed themselves to be road warriors when they needed to be, anyone who watched Games 6 and 7 would have to admit St. Louis benefited from home field advantage -- and when Texas blew Game 6, it felt like a foregone conclusion that the Cardinals would prevail in front of their home crowd the following night.
Did home field play a factor in the World Series? You decide. The Cardinals beat the Rangers three out of four games in St. Louis. They lost two of the three games played in Texas.
And why did St. Louis have home-field advantage in the World Series in late October?
Because back on July 12, the National League beat the American League in the All-Star Game -- an exhibition contest in which Cardinals players recorded three at-bats and no innings pitched. Tyler Clippard, a relief pitcher for a Washington Nationals team that would finish with a losing record, got the win. More than three months later, a team that did not won its division in the regular season was awarded home field advantage in the World Series over a division winner.
And that's just wrong. For the integrity of the game, MLB needs to do away with the ridiculous and arbitrary rule that awards home field in the World Series to the team from the league that won the All-Star Game. The current wildcard structure has done enough to devalue the achievement of winning your division over the grind of a 162-game marathon. It should not be devalued further by a rule that can award home field in the biggest series of all to a second-place team over a first-place team.
Okay, so you tell me Texas, playing in the four-team American League West, had to top only three teams while St. Louis had to beat four teams just to finish second in the six-team National League Central. It's a good argument, and one I'd certainly make as a Cardinals fan -- except the Rangers won 96 games in the regular season, six more than the Cardinals did. The Rangers were the more prolific winners headed into the World Series, yet they were penalized in the World Series for action that did not take place between the lines in any of its games.
But the National League's win in the All-Star game proves the league was better than the American League this year and so its representative in the World Series deserved home field advantage, you say? Fans of the sport, of course, realize you can't say any one game proves anything. Case in point: the American League went a collective 131-121 against the National League in interleague play this year.
Why did MLB commissioner Bud Selig set the All-Star Game as the decider of home-field rights in the World Series? To provide an artificial incentive for players and managers to take the Midsummer Classic more seriously -- so network television and its sponsors would take it more seriously. And we have former managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly to thank for that.
There's no rule that says everyone named to an All-Star squad has to play in the game. It's an honor in and of itself to even be named an All-Star, and it was not unusual for some of the star reserves not to appear. They were, after all, reserves, albeit All-Star reserves. In recent years, however, managers increasingly have treated the Midsummer Classic like field day in elementary school. Every player comes away with a participant ribbon.
Things came to a head in 2002, when the game went into extra innings and Torre and Brenly, having burned through their rotations in an attempt to keep everyone happy, ran out of pitchers. In a surreal scene, they met by the stands to confer with Bud Selig, who decided to call the game after eleven innings with the score tied 7-7 amid the cries of disappointed fans chanting "Let them play" like a scene out of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. It was a PR fiasco.
To prevent a repeat scenario, Selig came up with the bright idea that the winning league in the Midsummer Classic would receive home-field advantage for its representative in the Fall Classic. The rule went into effect in 2003 along with the forced slogan: "This time it counts!"
Thus, whereas home field in the NBA Finals and NHL Finals hinge, more logically, on regular season performance, home field in the World Series would be decided upon by the outcome of a mid-season exhibition game in which starting lineups are decided based upon a popularity contest voted upon by the fans.
But if the "it counts" rule was intended to place more importance on the All-Star Game, someone forgot to tell the players. Lately, more and more players who were named to the game have opted to skip it. This summer, 16 players elected not to go -- some because of legitimate injuries, others not so much. Derek Jeter, captain of a New York Yankees team who was in first place at the All-Star break and thus would have had considerable interest in who had home-field advantage in the Series, decided on the Thursday before the All-Star break he needed to forego the game because of fatigue -- and then played on Saturday and went 5-for-5 for the Yankees. As ESPN's Jerry Crasnick commented on the All-Star exodus, it seemed liked baseball's top players were "bailing by the hour for Bahamas vacations, family cookouts or orthopedic consultations."
As for the incentive of World Series home field hanging in the balance? Former manager Joe Torre said, "I'm not sure any of the All-Stars are thinking about that when they go out and play." Despite Selig's best-laid plans, the MLB All-Star Game seems to be about as important to some players as the Pro Bowl does to some NFL stars.
Meanwhile, MLB decided in 2010 that any pitcher who starts a game on the Sunday before the mid-season break would be ineligible to pitch three days later in the All-Star Game. The reason? So pitchers would not end up pitching on one day's rest and possibly injure themselves in an (ahem) meaningless exhibition game. Thus, some of the game's top hurlers will inevitably be unable to appear in the All-Star Game, diluting the level of competition even further.
And this is the game that decides home-field advantage for the hallmark series of the national pastime.
But, you say, if the Cardinals hadn't had home field this year, we would have missed out on the drama that culminated in a walk-off home run in Game 6!
Well, that sort of thing has a way of evening itself out. If Selig's rule had been in effect in 1986 when the American League won the All-Star Game, the Red Sox, not the Mets, would have had home field, and we would have been denied that classic Game 6 ending at Shea Stadium. And if the rule had been in effect in 1975 when the National League won the All-Star Game, Cincinnati would've had home field, and fans would have been denied the indelible image of Carlton Fisk's wave-it-fair walk-off at Fenway in that classic Game 6.
Again, my point is not to dull the shine of the Cardinals' World Series trophy. Their amazing run from late summer to last Friday night was a credit to the sport. And you can't blame the players for the rules of the game. The Cards played the cards they were dealt.
But the All-Star Game rule diminishes the integrity of the World Series and has to go away.
Home field should go instead to the team with the better record in the regular season. Not only is it more fair in rewarding a team's season long performance -- as opposed to the performance of a hastily assembled squad in a single exhibition game in which the vast majority of any given MLB team's players do not participate -- it also would increase the value of the regular season by encouraging the top seeds in each league to keep their feet on the pedal right until the end of the season -- just as division leaders do when competing for postseason seeds within their league.
And if both World Series teams have the same record? There are many possibilities for merit-based tiebreakers: Award home field to the team with the better run differential in the regular season. Or to the team that lost the fewest games in league playoffs. Or, if the two Series teams met in interleague play that season, to the team with the better head-to-head record. Something based on actual team performance.
As for the All-Star game, create an All-Star Week and move the game to Thursday so that all pitchers will have three days' rest before and after. Stipulate that all players honored with selection must make the trip unless they're on the disabled list. And remind All-Star managers they're managing a baseball game and not running for office, so they'll just have to keep a few of their twelve pitchers in the bullpen in case the game goes into extra innings -- just as managers do in any game that actually counts.