The All-Star Game will take place later this month in Los Angeles. (Source: MLB)

The All-Star Game matters to the players

The All-Star Game matters.

And not because it decides home field advantage in the World Series.

The All-Star Game matters because it rewards the players. Or at least it should. We always hear about how the game is about the fans. And in a lot of ways, it is. But the Midsummer Classic should be about the players.

It should belong to the best players. Not the most popular or the most talented or the future Hall of Famers. The All-Star Game should be about the best players for the three and a half months of the summer.

Unfortunately, the best players aren’t always rewarded. There are always snubs and head-scratching selections. And this year will be no different. [...]

Chase Utley leads the voting for second baseman by over one million votes. While his recent injury will keep him from participating, Utley would have been the man at second. While he has been a perennial All-Star at a position lacking star power, this year has been a struggle for the hard-nosed middle infielder. He is hitting .277 with 11 home runs for third-place Philadelphia.

The first-place Atlanta Braves success this season has hinged largely on second baseman Martin Prado. Without the name recognition and previous success that Utley has, Prado is second in All-Star voting. Prado has been a hitting machine this year. His .333 batting average is tops in the National League and his 111 hits lead all of baseball. He will take his rightful place in Los Angeles as a starter in what will be his first All-Star appearance.

Prado is why the All-Star Game matters.

All-Star appearances are read off when players retire. They’re part of the Hall of Fame discussion. All-Star Games are a part of each individual player’s legacy.

Willie Mays and Hank Aaron played in the All-Star Game nearly every year of their stellar and long careers. And the All-Star Game was all about bragging rights then. They played all nine innings like a regular season game. It was serious. (It would be great if they took it as seriously as the old timers. It doesn’t make sense in today’s climate, but who doesn’t get chills watching Pete Rose bulldoze Ray Fosse for the win.)

Today, it’s more of a spectacle. But it’s still serious when it comes to judging greatness. Players deserve to know their good and that others have taken notice. Everyone likes a compliment.

In baseball, the All-Star Game is the ultimate tip of the cap. A sign of respect to players like Prado who haven’t felt admiration like Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols yet.

For years, lesser-known players having fantastic years have been left out of the All-Star festivities. Partly because fan voting turns it into a popularity contest or a duty to send the hometown heroes and partly because the managers fail to pick the bench objectively.

Last year, Charlie Manuel took care of his own. Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and Raul Ibañez were all on the National League squad. All had solid years, but there were other players more deserving.

Manuel thinks the game is important, but for the wrong reason. Sure, home field in the World Series is a big deal. But it hasn’t added any competitive juice to the game. Eventually, baseball will realize that rule has to go.

And when it does, the game will still matter. Because every year, there will be a Miguel Olivo or Brandon Phillips having All-Star campaigns. But it they’re not always recognized. Olivo and Phillips would undoubtedly swell with pride if their phones ring this weekend.

Yadier Molina hasn’t earned the starting spot this time around. Neither has Brian McCann. Yadi is a master behind the plate — blocking balls, gunning down runners, and managing the pitching staff – but a .231 batting average is never All-Star material. McCann is hitting .260 with nine homers. Not bad for a demanding position.

But Olivo sits prettier at .308 with 11 jacks. The Rockies backstop deserves some love. He has earned a first All-Star Game. Too bad he’ll have to be a bench addition.

The hot corner is a hot debate for the big game too. Placido Polanco leads the voting with David Wright close behind. Polanco has been solid and consistent for Philadelphia, but he’s also been injured on multiple occasions. Wright has the numbers for the job. He is batting .307 with 14 homers and a league-leading 63 RBI. He’s an All-Star.

But what about Scott Rolen. The old guard at third should be within a thousand votes of the leaders. He owns a .302 batting average to go with 17 dingers and 54 RBI. Bonus points for his veteran leadership on a winning club in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati is perhaps why Rolen isn’t closer on the ballot. Philadelphia and New York are bigger markets with bigger and more passionate fan bases. Cincy is starting to get its spark back from the Big Red Machine days, but can’t compete with the Phillies who have sold out every game this season. Rolen should be taking in his first home run derby since 2006 in a few weeks.

Then, there’s the guys who have been worshipped like Jeter and Pujols but don’t have the career to back it up. It’s not their fault. But it’s there.

Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward are the future of baseball. It was decided before the season. And it’s only gotten brighter as we bear down on the halfway point of the season. The key word when describing and praising these two is future.

They’re both going to be great. Plenty of All-Star Games are in the cards for them. Maybe even a trip to Cooperstown if it all goes as planned.

In 2010, though, they are not All-Stars.

Strasburg has pitched five games this year. He has been: unreal, dominant, overpowering, awe-inspiring, otherworldly, and jaw-droppingly good. Save those adjectives to make your case for Strasburg in every other All-Star Game for the next decade. They just don’t do much for a guy who has barely thrown at the major league level.

The All-Star Game is an honor. It has to be earned.

Jason Heyward has shown flashes of greatness during a full first half in Atlanta. But flashes don’t constitute greatness. They constitute potential. He has been inconsistent like any rookie. He’s learning and growing every day in a demanding environment. He’s got a long way to go to achieve his full potential. Heyward is also miles from being an All-Star. He is hitting .251 with 11 home runs. He has said he won’t play because of injury, but he shouldn’t even be in the discussion.

Hype and popularity distort the importance of the game. Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols will be on their respective All-Star clubs once again. And once again, they’ll have earned it. And when they play the game, we’ll all be reminded of their greatness when we see them out on the field.

The All-Star Game matters because the players included are reminded that they are great ballplayers. While they may not have a spot reserved in Cooperstown like others in the locker room, they’re pretty good too. And this year, they’re equals. Martin Prado and Miguel Olivo have been every bit as good – if not better than Pujols and Jeter. The All-Star Game is proof of that.

So remember, this one counts. It’s not about the World Series or winning. It’s about celebrating greatness and the newcomers that have earned a day in the sun.

Tags: All-Star Game Anaheim Brian McCann Chase Utley David Wright Jason Heyward Martin Prado Miguel Olivo Placido Polanco Scott Rolen Stephen Strasburg Yadier Molina

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