GIVE BASEBALL commissioner Bud Selig some credit.
He knows he'll always be remembered for canceling the 1994 World Series. He can't ever shake that low point in baseball history. In some circles, he'll forever be considered a used-car-salesman-turned-shill for the owners.
But he's tried to reinvent himself. He's tried to build a legacy beyond his infamous labor decisions. Selig has become the "international commissioner," doing his best to spread baseball throughout the world.
His greatest achievement toward that end will come this March in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, a 16-country tournament featuring the sport's best players representing their homelands.
Now, he needs to concentrate on raising baseball's profile in this country. He can start by remembering that the fans here drive the sport.
One way to prove that is to start tinkering with All-Star Week, which supposedly was designed for the fans.
More than 41,000 showed up at Comerica Park in Detroit Monday night for the annual Home Run Derby. Just about everyone left with a Bobby Abreu home run ball, so it was probably worth the $75 or more per ticket.
But how about the poor souls who attempted to watch the whole interminable thing -- all three-plus hours -- on the East Coast? How about the kids who went to bed with images of Jason Bay's 0-for-10 dancing in their heads, because they simply couldn't last until the end? If the contest had gone another 15 minutes, both sides would have run out of batting practice pitchers.
And it seemed unnecessary for Major League Baseball to include helium inside the derby balls, all of which have mysteriously disappeared before they could be suspended for 10 days. (Apparently, the balls that didn't land in Canada were purchased on eBay by `SlamminSam21.')
As part of Selig's international plan, MLB changed the derby's format this season, pitting representatives of eight countries against each other instead of continuing with the American League vs. National League theme. An insignificant move, but it was fine. Next year, though, MLB needs to make changes that mean something to fans, like making the All-Star events shorter than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Here are three suggestions: Keep eight participants, but shorten the first two rounds from 10 outs to five. Let the two finalists get 10 outs apiece.
Also, find a way to persuade the players to swing the bat. Put an umpire behind the plate to keep the hitters honest. That would hamper David Ortiz from choosing every 19th pitch to hit. If a player passes on a strike, let the ump ring him up for an out.
But most important, start the thing an hour earlier. There is no reason it needs to begin at 8 p.m. The host city practically shuts down during the week of the festivities, anyway.
West Coasters may complain that it is too early for them, but what's the difference between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. for Californians? They are all stuck in their cars on the freeway listening to their radios during that period, anyway.
A time change also should be implemented for the All-Star Game.
What's the point of having a representative from every team when some reserves don't get into the game until 11 p.m. EST? Move the start from 8:30 to 7 p.m.
The best move would be switching the All-Star break to a weekend, like the NBA's. That way, the events can be held earlier without conflicting with rush-hour traffic and working adults.
Selig could experiment with the All-Star break times and then eventually add a World Series game or two in the afternoon each season -- to really show baseball is a fan-friendly game. That will never happen, though, because there is too much advertising money at stake in the evenings.
So the All-Star Game and its Home Run Derby should be Selig's focus.
Make it as international as you want, Bud. Make it a celebration of cultural diversity. Let it help further your personal, international agenda.
But also throw a bone to people who are here, while they still care, and are still awake.
EXTRA BASES Say what?
"Would we have played better? Yeah, I think if we had started the Series in St. Louis, maybe we would have lost in five."
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on whether his team, which was swept by the Boston Red Sox in four games in the 2004 World Series, would have fared better if it had had home-field advantage, something that is now decided by the outcome of each All-Star Game.
Felipe Lopez, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, seemingly has been around forever. But he's just 25. The eighth pick overall in the 1998 amateur draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, Lopez made his debut in 2001 but failed to show he could lay off pitches outside the strike zone through his first four seasons. He's more disciplined now. Through the season's first half, he had already set career highs in at-bats (296), runs (49), RBIs (48) and homers (14) - good enough for his first All-Star appearance.
That's how many games out of first place the Montreal Expos were at the All-Star break in 2004. That last-place Expos team had a .356 winning percentage, the second worst in baseball at the time. This year at the break, the new Expos, the Washington Nationals, had a .591 winning percentage and led the National League East by 2 1/2 games.
Plenty of potential pennant-race action in the American League this week. The Orioles visit Minnesota starting tomorrow, the Boston Red Sox play four games against the Chicago White Sox beginning Thursday, and the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers each host the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees. In the National League, the Colorado Rockies come to Washington to play against Preston Wilson after trading him to the Nationals last week.