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This Time, It (Sort Of) Counts!

If you caught any of Fox's promos leading up to the 74th Major League Baseball All-Star Game, you might have jumped to the conclusion that when stacked up against Tuesday night's showdown between the American and National Leagues, all earlier instances of human conflict -- York versus Lancaster, Blue fights Gray, Axis against Allies, shirts and skins -- would pale in comparison. The promos featured footage of a visibly irate Barry Bonds waggling his bat at a pitcher impertinent enough to throw at his noggin, a frustrated Nomar Garciaparra slamming his mitt in anger as the breaks went against his team, and various other shots of players celebrating, cursing and struggling under the unyielding intensity of competition. And then, just when you expect to see a clip of Roger Clemens taking a page from "The Last Boy Scout" and firing off a large-caliber handgun into the face of any batter foolish enough to crowd the plate, Fox's promo ended with a slogan displayed in an all-caps, three-hour-cinematic-epic style font.

This Time, It Counts.

Leave it to the brain surgeons running Major League Baseball, with an assist from their enablers at Fox, to come up with a slogan that manages to simultaneously denigrate their product while insulting their longtime paying customers. Baseball management has taken great pains in recent years to run down its product -- the players as well as the game -- by telling anyone who will listen that baseball players are shiftless, overpaid babies who have little concern for you, the fan, and then wondering why no one will pay ever increasing ticket prices to watch the athletes that were just slandered. Instead of "This Time, It Counts," Major League Baseball might as well have opted for a slogan along the lines of "This Time, Our Pampered Millionaires Might Actually Exert Effort" -- the underlying message would have been about the same.

As for insulting the fans, if the All-Star Game finally counts this go-round, as Baseball and Fox seem to suggest, it follows that the previous 73 editions of the game didn't count for squat. Pity the poor fans who wasted any portion of their lives watching those meaningless exhibitions, huh? Well, fear not, gullible fan -- this time, it counts! You have the solemn word of the guardians of our national pastime that they won't try and sucker you this year like they have for every summer since 1933.

It counts this time because baseball commissioner Bud Selig, at the behest of Fox, decreed that to the All-Star Game victor goes the World Series spoils -- namely, home field advantage in this fall's World Series. Whichever league triumphed in the heretofore meaningless exhibition game at Comiskey Park -- and yes, I realize that a cellular phone company paid the Chicago White Sox a significant sum of money to rename the stadium, but since I'm not getting a dime from said cellular phone company, I figure I'll call the park whatever I want -- would get to host the seventh and deciding World Series game, if necessary. And since a seventh game has only been necessary four times since 1989 -- there's been just as many four-game sweeps during that same period -- one has to wonder just how big a deal home-field advantage in the World Series actually is.

But never you mind that -- it counts this time, damnit. The promos told me so.

The format switch comes in the wake of last year's 7-7 tie, in which Milwaukee fans booed a chagrined Selig out of his home ballpark. However, Selig insists that making the All-Star Game for all the World Series marbles had nothing to do with last year's debacle; for once, Selig is probably right since raising the stakes does nothing to eliminate or reduce the possibility of a tie score. Rather, the All-Star Game's new "This Time, It Counts" mantra has long been championed by television. Fox, having paid more for the postseason and All-Star game broadcast rights than you probably have in your wallet right now, was alarmed to discover that ratings for this showcase event were plummeting faster than viewer interest in "Mr. Personality." Upset by this turn of events, Fox began clamoring for ways to goose interest in the game, no matter how obvious or ineffective the contrivance. And Major League Baseball, desperate to convince network television executives that it's in their best interest to throw good money after bad, was all too eager to cooperate.

(Apparently, Fox wasn't satisfied just to monkey with the format of the game. This year, it also demanded a say in who got on the team. After Roger Clemens got left off the American League squad -- not unreasonably, considering he's won only two more games than he's lost this year and there are more deserving pitchers on his own team that didn't make the All-Star Game -- Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports, made it clear his network would be very disappointed if the Yankees' head-hunting goon wasn't on the field Tuesday night. Earlier this week -- miracle of miracles! -- Clemens was added to the roster, at the expense of Oakland Athletics pitcher Barry Zito -- purportedly at the insistence of his own team, though that was news to Zito. Presumably, this fall, should the Athletics or the Kansas City Royals or the Minnesota Twins or some other small-market team abscond with the Yankees' predestined place in the World Series, Bud Selig will show a bit more spine once Ed Goren starts suggesting that Fox would prefer that New York be inserted into the championship series instead. Wouldn't bet on it, though.)

(And since we've gone parenthetical all of a sudden... not that Fox asked my opinion, but if it really wanted to improve its baseball ratings, the network should concern itself less with gimmickry and more with speeding things the hell up. Last night's All-Star Game clocked in at two hours and 38 minutes -- a fairly peppy pace when it comes to these affairs. But because of the pregame hoopla, the first pitch wasn't actually thrown until 8:40 Eastern time, meaning that as the American League was making its dramatic late-inning come back, east coast viewers -- particularly kids -- were fighting off sleep. That's simply ludicrous. There's no reason why Fox can't move its pregame blather up an hour or so, since the people who care about that sort of thing can adjust their viewing or recording schedules accordingly. That way, the first pitch can occur right at 8 Eastern on the dot, and we can wrap this thing up long before Leno is telling the first of many painfully obvious, formulaic jokes.)

Ah, but all this kvetching -- it's just some cynical Web stooge running off at the mouth, right? After all, anything that ratchets up the intensity level has to be good for the game. Because, as Fox was fond of reminding us before, during, and after last night's telecast, this time, it counts.

Or maybe it doesn't so much. I don't remember too many games that counted where TV interviewers sat in the dugout, as Fox's Kevin Kennedy and Steve Lyons did Tuesday night. I watch more baseball on television than I probably should, and I can't recall any instances of players assenting to in-game interviews, except for meaningless exhibitions. And I'm pretty sure that when he's done pitching in a game that counts, Roger Clemens doesn't sit in the dugout wearing his civvies and holding his kids. Fox cameras caught that image Tuesday and then quickly cut away -- we can't have the viewers at home thinking the players aren't deadly serious about this All-Star Game, after all.

Not that viewers would have reached that conclusion after listening to members of the Fox broadcast team use some variation of the "This Time, It Counts" phrase an estimated seven zillion times during last night's telecast. If we repeat it often enough, the thinking in the Fox booth seemed to go, maybe everyone will believe it -- no matter how much visual evidence there is to the contrary. Everyone in Fox's employ played the role of carnival shill, from Jeannie Zelasko -- a once entertaining and talented broadcaster during her radio days who, alas, has fallen into the clutches of Fox and devolved into a talking meatstick willing to mouth whatever inanities her bosses order her to -- to people who should actually know better. Fox's announcing team includes Kennedy, who enjoyed a couple successful seasons as a manager, two-time All-Star Tim McCarver, and Lyons... who probably had tickets to an All-Star Game once or twice. These are three people who have all played the game -- surely, they wouldn't play along with the charade that the players were approaching last night's game with any more intensity than they do any contest.

Or perhaps not, if Kennedy's withering line of inquiry in a postgame interview with victorious AL manager Mike Scioscia is anything to go by. "You said you were going to manage this game differently," Kennedy said to Scioscia. "You were going to manage to win." Scioscia confirmed that, indeed, he tried to win the game, and if that's different from his normal approach to management, I guess that explains why the Anaheim Angels are eight and a half games out of first place right now and on pace to miss the playoffs. Maybe Scioscia should try managing to win all of the time.

How appalling were some of the howlers Fox announcers told last night in the interest of pretending that the All-Star Game had suddenly becoming meaningful? Let us count the ways:

(Attention readers: in order to illustrate that Fox's broadcast team knowingly spews one laughable whopper after the next to promote its "This Time, It Counts" fiction, it becomes necessary for me to leave the warm, comforting waters of straight television criticism, and delve into the off-putting world of baseball geekery. I understand that a good portion of TeeVee readers don't care for this -- your thoughtful cards and letters say as much, anyhow, in much more graphic language. So, assuming you've made it this far, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs -- to sum up, the takeaway message will be, "The mouths of Fox announcers are foul and full of lies" -- and catch up with the rest of us, about the time I start making fun of Amy Grant. I won't be offended. Well... I will be. I'm not blathering on here for my health. But it's probably best for the both us that you skip ahead.)

  • At one point during the game, Fox AnnouncerBot Joe Buck reported that the first substitution of a position player didn't occur until the fourth inning -- the implication being that crafty managers Scioscia and Dusty Baker were hoarding their subs as some part of master strategy to win this suddenly vital game. And that line of reasoning holds up fairly well... until you look at the box score from last year's game -- back when managers and players alike supposedly didn't care who won -- and see that first substitution of a position player also occurred in the fourth inning.
  • In the fifth inning, Scioscia ran out onto the field to argue a decision by umpire Tim McClelland to award an extra base to Rafael Furcal on a ground-rule double, thus allowing the National League to pick up another run. This won the approval of both the robotic Buck and his human counterpart McCarver. See, the result of this game does matter, they chirped -- when was the last time you saw a manager dispute a call in an All-Star Game? I can't answer that, but I can point out that in the fourth inning, Anaheim's Garret Anderson was on first when Hideki Matsui of the Yankees hit a ground ball to second. In games where the result matters, Anderson slides -- he slides hard into second in an effort to knock the second baseman into next week and jar the ball loose, or at least break up any potential double play. In this game -- one where everything short of the fate of Western Civilization was supposedly at stake -- Anderson just stopped running and was tagged out. No sense in anybody getting hurt, after all -- it's only an exhibition.
  • After Hank Blalock hit what turned out to be the game-winning home-run, McCarver praised Scioscia's managerial savvy for saving Blalock until the eighth inning. If Scioscia had sent Blalock up to bat for Troy Glaus back in the seventh, McCarver's reasoning went, the Texas Ranger would have had to face Houston's Billy Wagner. Both are left-handed, which is a match-up that favors the pitcher. Instead, Blalock pinch-hit in the eighth inning against a right-hander... and promptly drilled a two-run shot into the seats. And that's correct so far as it goes. Except that Glaus popped out to first when he faced Wagner in the seventh; it's not like Blalock would have done any worse. And since Blalock was the only other third baseman on the American League roster, he would have stayed in the game -- meaning he'd still be available to bat in the eighth when it came time for his late-inning heroics. In other words, saving Blalock until the eighth accomplished absolutely nothing. In fact, one could argue that Scioscia nearly waited too long to bring in substitutes since the American League didn't start scoring until the manager went to his bench.

Not that Fox restricted its lies to action on the field. During the seventh-inning stretch, pop music sensation Amy Grant performed "God Bless America." Her rendition was breathy and uncertain and not entirely her fault -- if Grant's frantic hand gestures at the start of the song were any indication, her click track might have been malfunctioning, meaning that she had to throw herself on the mercy of the stadium sound system feedback and wing it. That's a valiant effort, but still, it's not a performance that will be making its way to any "Best Live Performances of Patriotic Songs" any time soon.

Unless you're Joe Buck. "A beautiful rendition," he said, which was probably nicer than saying, "Hey, if you ever happen to find the right melody, hop on board." Then again, maybe Joe Buck's programming doesn't permit him to be mean.

If Fox wants to fill the airwaves with fibs and half-truths, that's the network's business. It's just a baseball all-star game, after all -- no more meaningful or significant in the greater scheme of things than a midseason Devil Rays-Orioles tilt played in front of 12,000 disinterested fans. It's also not our problem if Fox's announcers -- Kennedy, McCarver, human replicant Joe Buck -- want to pretend the preposterous things they're saying actually reflect the reality unfolding on screen. The fact that they wind up looking like boobs is their own private burden. But if you're going to spend billions of dollars for the rights to broadcast an event, why not take the time to get the coverage right? Why not make sure your analysis imparts useful information that can be appreciated by casual and hardcore fans alike? Why not forget the gimmicks and tricks and relentless spin and just concentrate on entertaining the folks who've bothered to tune in?

I mean, if I want to listen to someone concoct fanciful stories out of thin air and pass it off as accurate reportage, I'm not going to watch a baseball game -- I'll just turn on the Fox News Channel.


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