The American League won the 2014 MLB All-Star Game. Therefore, if the Oakland Athletics make the World Series this year, they will have home-field advantage. Sweet.
The overwhelming opinion among articles and comments I've read over the last 10 years is that determining home-field in the World Series based on the All-Star Game is a terrible idea. I've always found myself in a tiny minority of people who not only think that it's a perfectly reasonable idea, but that, for lack of a better word, it's kind of neat. But that's only because the alternatives don't seem any better.
Before the introduction of "This Time It Counts," World Series home-field simply alternated back and forth. This year is an even-numbered year, so prior to 1994 the NL would have gotten home-field. From 1995-2002, it was switched due to missing '94 for the labor strike; now the AL got the even-numbered years. When the All-Star Game ended in a tie in 2002, Bud Selig came up with the new rule to guarantee that there would always be a vested interest in determining a winner.
I just don't get the appeal of the arbitrary "alternating" rule. What could be worse than randomly assigning home-field based on what year it is? Another common suggestion is to base it on which team had the best regular-season record, but given that the two leagues play mostly separate schedules and the unbalanced divisional schedules muck up the uniformity even more, comparing the win totals of an AL and NL team is like comparing apples and oranges. It's not fair. (Note: I have no problem with the split leagues and unbalanced schedules; they just throw a wrench into this type of straight-up comparison.)
However, while listening to the radio the other day, I was finally struck by the disconnect between me and what seemed like the rest of the baseball world. There are really two separate issues here. One is the notion that home-field in the World Series should be determined by [insert your preferred method here]. The other is the idea that the All-Star Game should mean anything at all once the final out is recorded, that "This Time It Counts" robs the Midsummer Classic of its exhibition nature. I could be mistaken, but I think that latter part is what really gets people up in arms.
Here's the thing, though. The ASG is still purely an exhibition game. The teams are still bound by the rule requiring a representative from each club, and that forced quota, coupled with the fan voting for the starters and the managers' tendencies to pick their own players even if there is a slightly more deserving guy on another club, shows that the rosters are not in any way built with an emphasis on winning. And, as Grant Brisbee pointed out in a recent column, the games are still managed more with an eye toward including as many players as possible than actually trying to win the game. As he put it:
Mike Matheny replaced Andrew McCutchen with Charlie Blackmon, Jonathan Lucroy with Devin Mesoraco, and Clayton Kershaw with Alfredo Simon. If this game really, truly meant something, Kershaw would have started and gone nine innings. It doesn't, and he didn't.
The spirit of the game has not been co-opted by an entertainment-sapping focus on winning at all costs. It just hasn't. It's still the same game that it's always been, except that fans have gotten noticeably better at picking the most-deserving starters. You may disagree with me, but I reject the suggestion that the game has lost its flair. For goodness sake, Derek Jeter led off for the AL. In 2014. He's batting .272/.324/.322 with poor defense at short. The All-Star Game is still just for fun, just for the enjoyment of fans (remembering that lots of fans outside of Oakland truly love Jeter and still want to see him play).
That leaves us with the concept of the game being the determining method for home-field in the Fall Classic. That's something that I just can't get worked up about. Historically, the method of making this crucial decision was pure randomness. "Hey, what year is it? 1998? OK, the AL gets home-field." That is the dumbest thing I can imagine. It's literally a coin flip. If you want any degree of fairness, then you must hate that old method. Anything is better than that, which means that This Time It Counts is better than that.
But even though the current model is better than the old one, you still may not like it. So, what other ideas are there? I've already addressed using the team with the best regular-season record. You also can't use head-to-head record; there is only around a one-in-three chance that the two league champions played against each other during that season, since each team cycles through playing a different division in interleague play (the A's got the NL East this year, and the NL Central last year).
The concept behind This Time It Counts, as far as I can tell, is to instill some sort of greater league pride in the proceedings. With interleague play, national TV packages that allow everyone to see any game, and (I assume) increased player movement, the distance between the two leagues has shrunk remarkably. Major League Baseball now feels more like 30 teams than two leagues of 15, with only the DH and some scheduling quirks separating them at all. The All-Star Game feels like the last bastion of that league identity, the last thing that truly pits the AL against the NL. That's why I've always thought it was a decent enough idea to use it to reward the league's champion a few months down the line.
But there is one thing, one method that I think would be far-and-away better than any other. It's still based on league pride, but it ignores the midsummer exhibition and focuses on regular season ball as well. It also has precedent within MLB's playoff seeding structure. Simply add up each league's record in interleague play and award home-field to whoever won the "season series," just as you would if two teams were tied for best record and you needed to pick one of them to be the No. 1 seed (and get a theoretically more favorably matchup against the Wild Card winner in the LDS). It removes the randomness of the All-Star Game, which can be unexpectedly won by the last guy on the bench in a given year and is a terrible representation of which league is actually better. Baseball is properly measured in large sample sizes, and overall interleague records are a sizable sample.
Where does that leave us? There's no grand conclusion here, just a writer emptying his brain on a page and looking for a thoughtful conversation. I just can't get worked up about the All-Star Game determining home-field; there is one way that I would prefer, and many others which I think are much worse. I like the concept of clinging to one last form of AL/NL identity, and it seems like MLB at least came up with the second-best way of doing so as far as World Series home-field is concerned. What do you think?