For the last few years, watching the Major League All-Star game has been about as much fun as pulling your fingernails out.
Those of us who pull for the Phillies knew the game had much more importance than this mid-summer love-fest ought to have. In 2003, major league baseball decided (in an effort to beef up TV ratings of the game, which had been declining) to "make the game more meaningful" and decreed that the winner of the annual game between the American and National league stars would determine who had home field advantage in the World Series.
The National League had not won this game since 1996, when it was played in Veterans Stadium. (The game in 2002 ended in a 7-7 tie). That means since the game was artificially given more "meaning" by Major League Baseball, no National League team has had the advantageof hosting four games of the World Series. Until last night.
If you think that doesn't matter, think again. The Phillies managed to win the 2008 World Series by taking care of business in five games. The last three were at home. (That fifth game, you will recall, became a game for the ages when it was suspended after 5 innings with the score tied at 2-2 because of a torrential downpown that left the field under a blanket of rainwater.)
The Phillies -- heck, the entire region -- had to wait two long days before the last four innings were played. The Phillies played those final four innings with a dramatic sense of urgency. Not because no local team had won a championship in 25 years. Because they didn't want to return to Tampa for games 6 and 7. Tampa had "won" the right to host those critical games because the AL team had defeated the NL at the All-Star game.
And then there is the way last season ended. Who among us thinks the outcome of the 2009 World Series against the Yankees might have ended differently if the Phils had played the first two games at home and then had critical game six at Citizen's Bank Park? The National League lost last year's All-Star game 4-3, with Phillies' manager Charlie Manuel at the helm. That loss came back to haunt Manuel in October.
If you caught the end of the game last night, you already know the Phillies owe one of their former players a huge pat on the back. Marlon Byrd, now an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs and having his best season ever, came up huge. After getting behind in the count, 0-2 to pitcher Joe Thornton, Byrd patiently worked a critical walk to load the bases with two outs in the 7th inning and his team down, 1-0. He barely beat a throw home to score the game's final run (a huge insurance run) when Atlanta's catcher, Brian McCann, cleared the bases with a rope down the line.
But Byrd saved his best work for the bottom of the ninth with the NL nursing a 3-1 lead. With one out and Boston's sluggish slugger David "Big Papi" Ortiz leading off first base, Byrd saved the game. He hustled in from right field on a flair that dropped in front of him off the bat of John Buck and threw a strike to second base to force Ortiz for the second out. A routine fly to right field on the very next pitch ended the contest and -- after a drought of 15 years -- the National League finally had won an All-Star game.
Byrd's heriocs could have huge ramifications for the Phillies if they can get healthy and go on a second half run -- as has been their habit for the last three seasons.
If the World Series comes down to a seventh game and the Phillies are hosting that critical game just a few days before Halloween, we'll all be lifting toasts to Marlon Byrd. Maybe then some of us hard core baseball fans will stop complaining about baseball's decidsion to make the mid-summer classic "more meaningful."
I, for one, would love to see a game seven played this year at the Bank. But I also wish MLB would go back to letting the leagues take turns having the home field advantage. It's more fair that way. Home field advantage is much too big a prize to hang on the result of an All-star game that is essentially just an exhibition game.