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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

All-Star Headache for Scioscia

June 15, 2003|Ross Newhan

The All-Star game is still a month away, but the drumbeat has begun, the hype started, the relentless Fox commercials proclaiming, "This Time It Counts."

Well, yes, this time it counts to the extent that the winning league will receive home-field advantage in the World Series.

That can be and has been a significant advantage, but whether this largely cosmetic change will help achieve several All-Star goals remains to be seen.

Designed to stimulate Fox ratings, help atone for the embarrassment of last year's roster-devouring tie in Commissioner Bud Selig's own Milwaukee ballpark and restore some misplaced intensity, there is one certainty:

In accompaniment to the drumbeat, managers Mike Scioscia and Dusty Baker have their marching orders.

"Bud's directive is clear," Scioscia said in the Edison Field office he occupies as manager of the Angels. "The goal is to win, and that's fine as long as everyone knows what's expected and has the same understanding.

"I mean, it's impossible to manage to win and still get everyone in the game. The honor and experience of simply being there and representing their team and city is going to have to satisfy some of the players. The way it is, I'll be apologizing at our first meeting because not all of them are going to play."

But Scioscia has other things on his mind.

His Angels are striving to regain the consistency and momentum that ultimately led to a World Series title in 2002.

It was that triumph that qualified Scioscia to manage the American League All-Star team.

Good luck.

In the aftermath of last year's debacle in which Joe Torre and Bob Brenly ran out of players and Selig -- amid hometown boos and a shower of hometown beer -- had little choice but to call the game after the 11th inning, it's not an enviable position.

It's doubtful any All-Star manager has been scrutinized or analyzed to the extent that Scioscia and Baker will with every move.

It's doubtful any has faced this kind of unusual pressure to win what remains an exhibition game.

Or forced to tell players (many of whose preference would have been the beach) thanks for coming and sorry we couldn't use your services.

Or expected to convince players from teams basically eliminated by midseason that they should care which league has home-field advantage in the World Series.

Or asked to generate among 32 players a sense of league pride at a time when league rivalry has been softened by interleague play and league identification has been diluted by free-agent movement and the dissolution of separate league offices and umpiring staffs.

This time it counts?

Scioscia, of course, isn't going to be anything but positive.

He reflected on the assignment and said:

"I think the pendulum has swung from an exhibition-type game where you were trying to play everyone to a game in which you're going to see the starters play longer and matchups and strategies are used earlier.

"I don't think it's going to be this epiphany, where all of a sudden guys are going to come out and play harder. I don't think that's the issue.

"I mean, in my three All-Star experiences [two as a player and last year as a coach], I think the players have shown a tremendous amount of league and individual pride.

"I just think guys were used without a lot of thought to matchups or real strategy, and I think that's what will be different this time."

Maybe he has something. Maybe, as he suggests, the All-Star evolution has had more to do with how managers have handled the game than any less intensity among the players.

It started after the 1993 game at Baltimore's Camden Yards when then-Toronto manager Cito Gaston, piloting the AL team, failed to use Oriole pitcher Mike Mussina, generating the wrath of fans and media. Since then, unwilling to risk similar abuse, managers have been determined to use their entire rosters. The result is that starters are generally out of the game, and often out of the stadium, by the fifth inning, and managers are out of players after 11.

Under this approach, would All-Star heroes of the Ted Williams or Stan Musial magnitude still be in the lineup to deliver a decisive home run in extra innings, as they once did?

Would Pete Rose still be in the lineup and willing to risk injury in a teeth-jarring collision with Ray Fosse, as he once did?

Amid falling ratings, the embarrassment of last year and a series of generally less passionate games, Selig has cited those events to illustrate what the midsummer classic has been and can be again.

Of course, all he had to do was instruct managers to keep their starters in longer and it might have solved his problems. Then again, home-field advantage in the World Series has simply rotated between the leagues on a yearly basis, so deciding it on the field, even an All-Star field, is just as scientific.

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