With baseball's All-Star Game now less than a month away, the ballot battle for starting positions is about as tense as anything on the field.
Teams have mounted aggressive campaigns encouraging fans to vote for their players, offering incentives ranging from merchandise to free tickets in a luxury suite. The efforts have buoyed the All-Star chances of some players while triggering rivalries that are playing out on game broadcasts and in other media.
Even the Nationals, who have had few wins to celebrate, have campaigned hard for representation in the All-Star starting lineups on July 14, especially pushing for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right fielder Adam Dunn.
"We know that we haven't been winning on the field, but we've got some guys that are performing, and so we want to promote those guys," Nationals spokeswoman Chartese Burnett said. "We're optimistic and are being very vigilant. It's important to us and a source of pride. We certainly, absolutely believe that Ryan deserves to go, as does Dunn and some of the other guys."
Last week, the team held a contest encouraging fans to turn in hundreds of paper ballots. The fan who handed in the most won a chance to watch the team's batting practice from the field. On June 2, the team gave out "Vote for Nats" T-shirts with a list of eligible players on the back.
But with the All-Star voting closing in a little more than two weeks, it appears Nationals fans still have work to do. Zimmerman, who is batting .310 and had a 30-game hitting streak earlier this year, has collected more than 920,000 votes but still trails the New York Mets' David Wright by 300,000, according to tallies released Monday. Dunn, who was tied for fifth in the National League with 17 home runs entering Tuesday, ranks 12th among NL outfielders with about 585,00 votes.
This has not deterred some fans, including Carolyn Lantry, a writer from Arlington who estimates she has filled out more than 2,000 paper ballots with help from her mother. There is no limit to how many paper ballots fans can turn in. Lantry arrived at Nationals Park with 600 paper ballots last week, trading her ballots for some game-used balls and a lineup card.
"[Zimmerman] deserves the attention, and people need to know how good he is," said Lantry, who is quick to point out that he was fourth among votes for National League third basemen just two weeks ago. "And I'm tired of people maliciously attacking our team. If the third baseman of the last-place Washington Nationals actually wins the fan vote, that's pretty cool."
Major League Baseball encourages teams to promote the All-Star Game, which is routinely the most watched among the all-star contests in the major sports but has had viewership cut by nearly half since its peak in the 1980s. Baseball has ramped up the ability of fans to vote online for the game's starters, while adding a second vote to determine the final players added to each league's roster. Baseball expects to distribute more than 20 million ballots at the league's 30 ballparks.
Many teams, including the Orioles, Rangers and Giants, are giving away free tickets to those who vote the maximum 25 times online. Milwaukee Brewers fans who vote are entered into a drawing to watch a game from star outfielder Ryan Braun's suite at Miller Park. The team has made a series of impromptu visits with a player and "racing sausage" mascot to various sites in the Milwaukee area to hand out ballots. Such visits have garnered local media attention and were the subject of a segment on "This Week in Baseball." The Milwaukee Brewers have a player ranked in the top five in votes at every position, including Braun, who is second among outfielders behind the Philadelphia Phillies' Raul Ibanez with more than 1,667,000 votes.
"To see three, four five or your guys trotting out there, that's a really powerful message you have for your marketing," Brewers spokesman Tyler Barnes said. "If you start having multiple players out there, it really says your team has arrived."
In many cases, the top vote-getters in each league come from baseball's larger markets. Chase Utley, the second baseman for the defending World Series champion Phillies, is currently the top vote-getter among all players with just under 2.3 million votes. Ibanez and shortstop Jimmy Rollins also lead their respective categories with several other teammates in the top five. Ibanez, in particular, was buoyed by extensive chatter on talk radio and the Internet over the last month.
In the American League, the historic rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees has taken on a new dimension, with Boston's Kevin Youkilis recently taking a slight lead in votes over the Yankees' Mark Teixeira among first basemen. That rivalry could help generate additional votes, and Barnes said he expects to capitalize on the tight race between Braun and Ibanez for tops among NL outfielders.
"We have no problem throwing a little panic if it's going to help generate more activity," he said.