My (unrealistic) hope for a controversy-free World Cup lasted all of 71 minutes in the first match of the competition, when a Brazilian player hit the ground in apparent pain after minimal contact from his opponent. The referee was deceived and awarded a penalty kick, which Brazil converted to break a 1-1 tie that would have been a wonderful result for Croatia.
The New York Times just published an interesting article that relates to ISLE’s June 10 blog on diving in soccer. The author of the article wonders if the USA puts itself at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to international competition because diving to deceive the referee is not part of our national culture. As a result, our players apparently are not sufficiently skilled at the art of diving. If you saw the Brazil-Croatia World Cup opening game, the following observation by the NY Times author probably will ring true:
“It is undeniable that this tendency matters, particularly at the World Cup, where a single decision can be so meaningful. Little more than an hour into the opening game of this tournament, Frederico Chaves Guedes, a Brazilian forward known as Fred, went to control the ball near the top of the penalty area. He felt a Croatian defender’s hand on his shoulder. He then flung himself to the ground as if yanked back by a puppeteer’s string, throwing his arms into the air and screaming hysterically.”
I’m sure we have not seen the end of such theatrics as the tension mounts for all teams in Brazil and national heartbreak is inevitable for all but one nation.
Now to Major League Baseball, and its curious method of deciding which team should receive the benefit of potentially playing four of the seven World Series games on its home field. As you probably know, MLB awards home-field advantage to the team representing the league (American League or National League) that wins the All-Star game that season.
That’s right. A potentially significant competitive advantage in the most important set of games in the sport of baseball is based on who wins an exhibition game. I understand that Commissioner Selig was embarrassed when an All-Star game ended in a tie earlier on his watch (2002), and there were reports that MLB’s broadcast partners and sponsors wanted the All-Star game to “mean something,” but it is at heart an exhibition game and ratings have not improved.
MLB’s approach allows for a scenario such as this: assume every San Francisco Giant selected for the 2014 All-Star game is either injured or ill or, for the pitchers, unable to participate due to the timing of their previous appearance on the mound. The National League goes on to win the game even without the participation of any of the Giants players. The Giants then win the pennant and are given home-field advantage in the World Series. Is that fair on any level?
The sporting world won’t end if MLB continues this approach. I just don’t think MLB can change the nature of the All-Star contest by adopting a clever tag line (“This Time It Counts”) or by awarding a prize far out of proportion to the merits of the competition. Every team must be represented on the All-Star roster, the manager will do his best to insure that every position player sees some action, and no pitcher will be unduly extended. That does not sound like a formula that puts winning above other factors.
It is true that any format can be criticized. The previous approach of simply alternating the years for home-field advantage in the World Series could provide a team that snuck into the playoffs as a wild card the home-field advantage over a team that won 110 games. I am fine with that, but I understand why others might disagree. Or, one might argue that the results of interleague play, a much larger sample size than one exhibition game, should determine home-field advantage, and I would not argue with that, either.
So what would you do as MLB Commissioner on this issue? I welcome your thoughts.