PHILADELPHIA —- Hours before their game against the Cincinnati Reds and three-plus months before the World Series, the Phillies were taking batting practice, and Charlie Manuel was doing his thing. He was talking hitting, and he was passionate, and he was detailed, for he knew the importance.
Manuel’s message, simply: Practice now, and practice the right way now, and the baseball rewards will arrive. Literally at the same time upstairs, three fans, one clad in a Hawaiian shirt, were fixated on computers, voting as many times as physically possible for the final National League All-Star. Their reward: The promise of some press-box food and free baseball tickets.
Consider, then, that collision. On the field, ballplayers were working and managers were scheming to win a game, and then a playoff spot and ultimately the World Series, which well could hinge on the home-field advantage in October. Yet upstairs —- and everyplace a radio station, a P.R. firm, an advertiser, a politician or an outright baseball foof could have access to a computer and a chance at a famous 15 minutes —- an All-Star Game roster spot was being manipulated, not earned.
“That’s a pretty important spot,” said Dusty Baker, the Reds manager, himself twice an All-Star. “It’s a very important spot, especially with the importance that is put on the All-Star Game. Not that that spot is the most important, but that spot could be the person who wins the game for their respective league. And it is important now. The home-field advantage has gone to the American League the last few years. It doesn’t mean they are always going to win it, but I’d rather have that fourth game in my spot than that fourth game at their spot.”
Batting 0-for-1,000 as the commissioner, Bud Selig has waved some absurdities past his checkpoint, although some have been when he has meant well. Since the All-Star rosters were expanded to 32 players in 2007 (a 33rd player, a pitcher, will be added this year), the selection of the final spot has been turned over to the fans, to be chosen from pre-screened candidates who were less-than-qualified to make the final cut. The concept? Acceptable. The fans matter; the fans rule. The fans deserve a voice, even beyond the selection of the starters.
But that’s not what is happening. It’s the lobbyists, not the customers, who have snared control. Radio stations are conducting ballot-a-thons, offering prizes to the most prolific voters. Advertisers are firing-out e-mails, supporting not the most qualified candidates, but their own spokesmen. “Here’s one from Motrin,” Shane Victorino said Tuesday, checking his BlackBerry. “They are supporting the Phillies. I did something for them once.”
That was the same Victorino who spent the other day with the mayor, going door-to-door, two candidates begging for their own kind of votes. No wonder a headache-pill firm has checked in. For hours before the game Tuesday, the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard screamed, “Vote Victorino!” But do the Phillies need Victorino on the All-Star team to win the game, or just to prove to prospective advertisers that their scoreboard has stronger gravity than the one in San Francisco?
“I guess they are trying to get people more involved,” said Baker, who stressed that he did not feel that the process has been trivialized. “I just hope the general public picks the best player —- the most deserving player. And as a whole, outside of a couple of spots probably, the public has done a pretty good job. I just hope they pick the most deserving player, not the most popular player.”
The streamlining of the ballot is a firewall. In the National League, Victorino is in competition with four others, all marginally qualified. There are five reasonable American League candidates. That is, it would be impossible to ramrod Manny Ramirez into the game, no matter how much the national cable networks deify him.
But baseball history can change if the wrong player is elected. Careers can change. Some deserving player might be denied an All-Star appearance on his record just because three guys cloistered in the Phillies’ press room are trying to win some hunk-of-junk give-aways.
Manuel will manage the National League All-Stars, meaning he will be under pressure to win not just the game, but the home-field advantage in the World Series, where the Phillies well may again close their season. And should the game come down to that fan-appointed player?
“I’d probably want,” Manuel said, “to pick that guy.”
Manuel did select the final five. But he won’t select the final player. Game-show contestants will —- contestants who didn’t even stop what they were doing Tuesday long enough to see the players taking batting practice, players trying to win their baseball rewards the right way.