David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Funny thing about the All-Star Game, now in its 83rd year. We already know that it counts for something. This will be the ninth season that the Midsummer Classic has decided home-field advantage for the World Series.
But every time someone wants to label the game a showcase for baseball's most popular and talented players, another cites the importance of winning it. And every time someone cites the importance of winning the game, another labels it a showcase for baseball's most popular and talented players.
So here we are, once again debating the meaning of it all -- whether R.A. Dickey should start for the National League and what the heck is David Wright, a bona fide MVP candidate, doing sitting behind Pablo Sandoval.
But Major League Baseball likes it that way. For all the arguing about the fan balloting being a dumb idea for a game that impacts the playoffs, don't bet on it changing anytime soon -- if ever. The decision to boost TV ratings for the All-Star Game by attaching artificial significance initially was designed as a two-year experiment in 2003, but there's no immediate plan to terminate it.
And it's not as if MLB was searching far and wide for a way to decide home-field advantage. They just wanted some extra juice for the All-Star Game and -- voilà! -- a marketing slogan was born: "This Time It Counts."
What complicates things now is that the fan balloting, which used to involve folksy punch cards distributed at ballparks, has evolved into a powerful online gateway for advertising revenue and website hits for MLB.com, a huge money-making enterprise.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. This is, after all, an entertainment business. But as a result, there will be some inequities -- Sandoval starting over Wright, for instance -- and that tends to hurt the integrity of the overall message. It also puts a burden on the All-Star Game managers to balance that showcase element with some sort of competitive mindset.
"I think the guys that get to the All-Star Game deserve a lot of credit," said Tony La Russa, who is coming out of retirement to manage the NL squad. "They deserve their opportunity to get out there and let the baseball fandom see them. So I think that's the way you play it."
Even La Russa, considered one of baseball's better strategists, didn't bring up the importance of winning the game when the question of using his roster was posed. Only when he was asked about the possibility of starting Dickey did La Russa make it sound like a chess match.
Is it fair that position players voted in by the fans get the majority of the innings while pitchers, regardless of their first-half accomplishments, can be used at the whim of the managers? Obviously, there are more sensitive issues involving pitchers, depending on their workload coming into the game and their health status. But shouldn't that "credit" La Russa mentioned also apply to someone like Dickey, who at 37 just completed a historical first half along with maintaining a statistical superiority in many categories?
"You walk that thin line," said Terry Collins, one of the coaches on La Russa's staff for Tuesday's game. "I appreciate the fans' votes. I think it's great. But at the same time, this game means some things. The people who are having the best years -- they're all going to be there."
AL manager Ron Washington, whose Rangers finished runner-up in the last two World Series, said he expects to use his starters for "half the game" and then try to get everyone else in with the "flow of the game to determine how well you can do that." Factor in bullpen use, and saving players for the possibility of extra innings, and it's not so simple.
Unless you're La Russa, who unlike Washington has little riding on the outcome. Which brings us right back to the core question: How do you have a retired manager calling the shots in a game that affects this season?
Maybe it's best not to over-think this. Just enjoy the show.