Sports Nut

Internet Manager 1.0

How to make baseball’s All-Star Game more democratic.

Since 1970, baseball fans have voted in stadiums, stores, and now online to select the starting lineups for the annual major-league All-Star Game. Once a controversial dose of democracy in an otherwise autocratic sport, today fan voting has become irreversibly popular. Yet after 30 years, it’s also become a form of athletic perestroika: better than centralized control, but not quite genuine democracy. And that’s made the All-Star Game the Mikhail Gorbachev of American sports—a once-promising reformer whose popularity has plummeted. (Last year’s drew the lowest rating in the 33 years the game has been televised.)

That’s why it’s time to bring a new round of democratic reforms to the All-Star Game. Letting fans vote isn’t enough. It’s time to let them actually manage the two teams.

Here’s how turning fans into managers would work: Any baseball fan could register on the Web to help manage either the National or American League squad. Once they’ve signed up, the fans would choose the batting order and select the starting pitcher—two tasks currently handled by each team’s official managers but easily transferred to the Web. On All-Star night, the on-field managers (this year, the Mets’ Bobby Valentine for the NL and the Yankees’ Joe Torre for the AL) would present the fan-selected batting orders to the umpires, and the game would proceed as usual—with two key differences.

First, certain actions by the on-field managers would trigger an audience vote. For example, if Valentine walked to the mound to counsel a pitcher in trouble, fans would enjoy an instant referendum. Should the pitcher stay or should he go? If you’re at home, click your mouse now. If you’re in the stands, press the appropriate button on your handheld. Then if fans sent the hurler to the showers, they would decide whom to bring in from the bullpen. Likewise, a manager could pull a batter for a pinch hitter, but that would trigger a fan vote on who should go to the plate. And intentional walks would require fan approval: Before a pitcher could give a batter a free pass, he’d need a majority vote of both teams’ “fanagers.”

Second, each on-field manager would have three lifelines that he must use during the game. For instance, if Torre were noodling over whether Ichiro Suzuki should steal second, he could ask the fans, who would respond by voting instantly on the Web or on their in-stadium devices. To give these lifelines oomph, there would be penalties for not using them. If a skipper failed to use all three lifelines by the end of the game, the opposing team would get an extra half-inning at-bat for each unused lifeline. That would allow a manager to ignore fan advice—but only at his team’s peril.

We could even intensify the fanager vs. manager drama—and simultaneously conduct a nationally televised experiment in complexity theory—by letting fans manage one team and a real manager manage the other. Suppose we replace, say, the National League manager with a fan representative who’d simply carry out the masses’ wishes. Can the combined intelligence of distributed baseball aficionados make better decisions than the single brain of Joe Torre? Would the wisdom of a self-organized swarm exceed the reasoning power of any single individual? It’s great drama—not to mention a fabulous Harvard Business Review case study.

Allowing fans to manage is a smaller step than it seems. Millions of people already participate in fantasy sports leagues—drafting, trading, and sidelining ballplayers. (Indeed, for some fans, major-league baseball exists merely to provide a data stream for their more interesting fantasy pursuits.) Meanwhile, tens of millions of TV viewers have grown accustomed to democratic processes—think Big Brother, Weakest Link, and Survivor—deciding the outcomes of televised events. This proposal would marry fantasy sports leagues with reality TV—creating perhaps a new form of entertainment. A few high-concept cable companies already allow fans to watch football games and predict which play their favorite team is going to run next. But Web-based insta-voting, triggered by requests made on television and carried out in real time, would be among the first genuine instances of the convergence techno-visionaries have long promised.

At the very least, nudging the All-Star Game closer to genuine democracy would simply feel good. Chan Ho Park and Cal Ripken each will receive $100,000—more than double the median American household’s annual income—for being named to their respective All-Star teams. Wouldn’t it be sweet to yank Park for a reliever after he gave up a homer or to replace an 0-for-2 Ripken with a pinch hitter?

Baseball’s apparatchiks will no doubt object to fan managers. They’ll warn that our beloved national pastime must move slowly, that voting rights are power enough, and that the bleacher proletariat can’t make important decisions. Nonsense. Democratic reforms—from significant moves such as allowing African-Americans to play or eliminating the reserve clause to less monumental steps such as letting fans vote once a year—have almost always proved good for baseball. So forget All-Star Game perestroika. When the All-Star ump says, “Play Ball,” fans ought to shout, “Democracy now!”