- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Enough with the hand wringing, the foot stomping and the breath holding. The winner of baseball’s All-Star Game — the American League once again — is going to have the home-field advantage in the World Series … and if you don’t like it, you can Jerry Lumpe it (as we used to say in the Old Neighborhood).

I’m showing my age a bit there, but I didn’t have much choice. Lumpe (pronounced “lump-ee”), a middle infielder in the 1950s and ‘60s, is the only player in major league history whose name sounds like “lump.” He also happened to play in an era when the home-field advantage in the Series was more of a disadvantage, believe it or not. But we’ll get to that later.

Nowadays, of course, the home-field advantage is all-telling — or just about. In the last 20 Series, the teams with the HFA have won 17 times — a statistic that has been cited more often this week than Joe Mauer’s batting average (.378) or David Ortiz’s RBI total (87). Naturally, then, baseball’s decision to allow the outcome of an exhibition game to potentially impact on the Fall Classic has caused unending hyperventilation among the purist set.

“Absurd,” was how one newspaper columnist described the arrangement the other day.

“Beyond absurd,” sniffed another.

(Oh, wait. That was the same columnist. He was just upping the ante.)

“Scary stuff,” offered another.

(What can you say? Some guys just scare more easily than others.)

All of these folks are avoiding a very large issue. Yes, it’s kind of screwy that Bud Selig would try to pump life into the All-Star Game this way. There were certainly other steps he could have taken to rachet up the intensity after the embarrassing 7-7 tie in 2002, the one that saw both squads run out of pitchers. How about offering a cash prize to anybody who, instead of swinging for the fences, hits behind the runner?

But while the self-appointed Guardians of the Emerald Chessboard are carrying on about Selig’s travesty of a mockery of a sham, they’re ignoring two obvious questions:

(1) Why is it suddenly so hard to overcome the home-field advantage in the World Series?

(2) Should it be so hard?

Baseball is, after all, the sport in which the home field means the least. So far this year, the home team has a .537 winning percentage. In the NFL last season, the figure was .590, in the NBA it was .603 and in the NHL it was .627. In any major league baseball game, in other words, the visiting club has almost a 50-50 chance.

The percentage, moreover, has been dropping for more than a century. In the first decade of the 1900s, according to a paper by Cyril Morong published in the Baseball Research Journal, teams averaged about four more victories (4.01) at home than they did on the road; in the 1991-2002 period, however, they averaged less than three (2.84). Notes Morong: “Home stands are not as long as they used to be and teams now travel by plane. This might account for the historical trend.”

Returning to Jerry Lumpe … from 1965 to 1972, the club with the home-field advantage lost eight straight World Series. And some of these, I’ll just point out, were pretty fair clubs — the Earl Weaver Orioles (twice), the Sparky Anderson Reds (twice), the Sandy Koufax Dodgers, the Bob Gibson Cardinals. And get this: From 1955 to 1975, the club with the HFA lost 17 of 21 Series — nearly the exact opposite of the current streak.

Morong, an economics professor at San Antonio College, told me in an e-mail that in a Series between two teams of equal ability, the team with the HFA “has a 2 percent advantage.” This means that if they played a 162-game season against each other, “one … wins 81.802 games while the other wins 80.196 games. That seems very slight to me.”

Slight enough to temper some of the rage being directed at “Selig’s Folly.” Yes, the club that doesn’t have the home-field advantage in the World Series has been losing a lot, “but it is most likely an anomaly,” Morong said — just as the results from ‘55 to ‘75 are an anomaly. The more people fixate on it, though — fans and baseball types both — the more likely it is to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Memo to this year’s National League winners, whoever they might be: Time to grow some backbone, guys — like the ‘69 Mets, ‘55 Dodgers and all those other champions who found a way, on foreign fields, to make themselves at home.

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