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Voting irregularities vex world from midsummer to Series

By MATT LORENZ

July 14, 2009

I no longer work in newspaper sports departments or the public-relations office of a Major League Baseball team, so I can say this. I write as a private citizen, a lifelong fan steeped in baseball history, so I can say this.

What games are you people watching?

And what event are you people promoting?

The starting 16

Okay, hands. Which 2,412,359 of you – or 96,494.36 of you voting 25 times each – cast 2009 All-Star ballots for Josh Hamilton? His doctor, trainer and agent appreciate the starting spot in the American League outfield.

Hamilton, freed of his Devils and demons, reached Old Yankee Stadium’s 2008 midsummer show with an RBI pace worthy of Lou Gehrig. Then he entrenched – or obscured – his reputation for all-around play by hitting 28 baseballs out in the BP carnival of that Monday’s Home Run Derby qualifying round. He lost thereafter, turning Justin Morneau into a finals trivia answer, like Finland.

This year, Tampa Bay’s 1999 overall No. 1 pick limps off the disabled list toward St. Louis as the Least Deserving All-Star. When fan voting closed July 2, he had 6 home runs, 24 RBI, a .240 average and a few highlight defensive plays in 35 games and 125 at-bats.

“I don’t feel I personally deserve to go, but at the same time the fans voted me in, so I’m more than happy about that,” Hamilton, back from surgery on an abdominal muscle, told the Associated Press. “It’s a real honor for me to go for a second time around.”

Exit pollees, how about Jimmy Rollins, MVP shortstop, outslumping even B.J. and Big Papi? You nearly got a 6-27-.209 hitter elected to the NL lineup July 2. Hanley Ramirez must really be great to outrace him at the end without actually having home fans. Did the Philadelphia political machine ever review Ramirez (.348-13-58 as the polls closed) or No. 4 finisher Miguel Tejada (.333-6-42)? In Brew City, they were too busy voting for No. 3 favorite son J.J. Hardy (.228-8-32).

And wouldn’t Manny Ramirez have been amusing? Suspended 50 games for taking a fertility drug, he still finished seventh of 24 in the regular voting, way ahead of serious full-time outfielders Justin Upton (.309-14-45 through July 2), Matt Kemp (.302-10-41), who helped pick up the Dodger slacker’s slack, and Brad Hawpe (.333-13-56). Maybe Manny’s votes counted twice, since he apparently was playing for two. He did finish behind Alfonso Soriano (.230-14-32) of the Cubs, whose fans rival Phils fans as ballot-stuffers, last year pushing Kosuke Fukudome into the National League starting outfield.

Too long an election season

Time and total picture mitigate in the citizenry’s defense. Fans elect only nine of the 33 players on each All-Star team, one in the frenzied, hyped, blatantly electioneered All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote. Each league’s players, coach-managers and officials elect or select the other 24. Most of these choices stand up to statistical scrutiny, largely because the baseball insiders pick in July, not May.

So blame the convention, not just the delegates. The fan voting period is an institutional problem. Baseball’s official calendar this year allowed the casting of All-Star ballots May 15, earlier in some venues.

Hitting .350 and .326, Royal Willie Bloomquist and Yankee Melky Cabrera stood as Stars when May 15 dawned. As July 2 ebbed, they sat back down at .266 and .282. New New Yorker Mark Teixeira went the other way, .203-7-19 to .274-20-60, legitimating if not completely vindicating his first-place vote at first base.

That old-time corruption

Election spinning by Major League Baseball, broadcasters, teams and special-interest fan groups also encourage less-than-sound All-Star decisions. MLB and national networks tell everyone to vote for their favorite players. Team networks – local monopolies airing to fans across the spectrum and, in this era of satellite radio, around the world – tell everyone to vote for their favorite players from that team.

Even theoretically independent TV news broadcasts and newspapers feed the hype stream. Journalists, remember your sacred public trust and the 1957 Cincinnati Enquirer ballot-insert fiasco that made NL starters of seven Reds, two of whom commissioner Ford Frick removed in favor of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Thus ended fan voting’s first incarnation.

Team websites such as raysbaseball.com may be forgiven their cavalcade of Carlos Pena mug-logos and the injunction “vote for Los.” The sites are an extension of club PR/marketing publications, whose job is to shamelessly promote the organization, its members, and its sales. I once shamelessly promoted the Rays myself.

But the bigger realm of All-Star politics produces strange bedfellows, unsavory dealings, collusion that would shame even Peter Ueberroth. July 6, the day the main selections were announced and the Player 33 campaigns began, mlb.com revealed that the Angels and Dodgers had agreed to back each other’s Los Angeles-market candidate.

LAA asked fans to vote not only for Chone Figgins, but for Matt Kemp. And vice-versa with the Dodgers. The smoke-filled Detroit-Philly connection proved more formidable, calling in old union and underworld favors to inaugurate “Bran-Torino”: Brandon Inge and Shane Victorino.

Vote-bloc-swapping by baseball’s political machines represents the height of corruption. At least when individuals trade votes between districts, it’s usually on moral or environmental grounds.

America, there can be no ethics in government until our consciences vote. Instead of our favorite Rays, or Marlins, or Nationals, or Yankees, or Dodgers, or major-league players, should we not elect the most deserving? Just once, let’s hear: “Look closely at the games and stats and vote for the players truly having an All-Star season.”

Does pitching play in Peoria?

If pitching is 70 to 90 percent of the game, why do fans vote for 0 percent of the pitchers? How hard is it to print and post a big list of pitchers below the big list of outfielders, then take the fans’ top eight choices and leave 17 roster spots to the MLB powers that be and the after-election? Fans still would not name the starting pitcher, largely a function of the rotation calendar anyway.

Which side are you on?

Should this exhibition game determine homefield advantage for the World Series? Beyond the ballot-stuffing and systemic problems, the ASG is influenced by stars who opt to vacation for three days in July, stars who ironically switch leagues, and managers who run out of pinch hitters or reserves.

Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb struck out against Bruce Sutter for the next-to-last out of the NL’s 5-4 win in 1981. Under the current system, the eventual league-champion Yankees’ college of managers would have had a major complaint against AL manager and fellow firee Jim Frey.

The current system also gives All-Star managers an awkward incentive to overuse division rivals’ superstars, beyond the usual incentive of burning out those stars for the race. Now Jonathan Papelbon’s three innings can secure Joe Maddon a home date for World Series Game 7.

Conversely, the current system can send the All-Star hero onto the road for four Fall Classic games. Roy Halladay might key an AL victory with extra-inning relief, depart in the anticipated pre-deadline trade, then pitch games 1 and 7 of the World Series for the Phillies in the road bandbox of Yankee Stadium, or the Angels’ or Rangers’ or Tigers’ stadium, or Fenway Park, or Tropicana Field.

In 1983, Rick Honeycutt led the American League with a 2.42 ERA, going 14-8 in 174 2/3 innings with Texas. He pitched two innings in the All-Star Game at Comiskey, allowing two of the National Leaguers’ three runs and five of their eight hits. Had the new system been in place, the game been closer than 13-3, and the Dodgers survived the Phillies, Honeycutt’s poor midsummer outing could have greatly aided his new L.A. teammates against the Orioles in October.

Real measure of American and National

Is not interleague play a superior indicator of homeworthiness, fairer for establishing relative strength and any postseason edge: real teams, real games, all teams, all established players? The AL’s 137-114 advantage this year suggests its champion will have traveled a harder road, justifying a slight break for the season’s climactic seven games.

Or should the champion of the losinger league get the four home games to even the competition? Or why not just alternate 2-3-2 years as we always did?

Unfair advantage: NL

The American League’s 12-year unbeaten streak hides a dent in the All-Star Game’s integrity, with or without home field attached: unbalanced leagues. The National League has 14 percent more teams, 14 percent more players from which to draw. So it should win, if not 14 percent more All-Star Games, then 5 to 10 percent. The NL still has won 8 percent more decisions, 40-37. Until the leagues possess the same numbers of teams and players, expect the NL to retain that slight edge and convert it into a slight edge in the World Series.

Assuming the voting blocs in each league average the same number of fans per franchise, the National League also has more provincial votes at its disposal. NL fans have the numerical power to jury-nullify the AL. Might the Dodgers, the league’s 15 other teams and their fans organize to vote the injured and slumping onto the AL squad? Then it’s Game 7 tickets all around. Better chance of winning in the summer, better chance in the fall, four home games worth of home revenue if the Series teams extend each other.

Bye dates and interleague play throughout the season are more equitable than an 8-7 split in the star pool. If the Midsummer Classic counts in October and November, we AL fans demand our Brewers back.

Matt Lorenz, an independent marketer with St. Petersburg-based mattmedia of Florida, Inc., worked 18 years as an editor in the sports departments of the New York Tribune, Bergen-Passaic-Morris (N.J.) Record, St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune. He directed publications for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 1998 to 2002.

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