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With Series at stake, baseball must rethink All-Star balloting

It really doesn’t matter whether one of baseball’s tiniest markets has decided to totally rock the Internet-based All-Star vote or some brilliant miscreants have simply hacked it to monopolize the American League lineup with Kansas City Royals.

What matters is that Major League Baseball has left the integrity of the World Series to dangle in the middle of this latest ballot controversy.

Of course, fans and teams have gone to great lengths to skew the All-Star selection process in their favor for decades. And the resulting vote “scandals” have largely been dismissed as a predictable outcome of the sport’s desire to build as much interest as possible in what essentially is a midseason exhibition game.

Really, what are you supposed to expect when everyone is allowed to vote 35 times each from either club websites or mobile devices and every team campaigns endlessly to squeeze every possible vote out of its fan base?

And there are still fans out there trying to beat the system. MLB president of business and media Bob Bowman recently told Yahoo! Sports that baseball has already canceled more than 60 million improper ballots with two weeks to go in the voting, and that’s consistent with the percentage of Internet votes scrubbed in previous years.

The fact that there is a significant amount of nefarious voting every year is not surprising and would not be particularly disturbing if we were talking about a self-contained All-Star Game that was played entirely for entertainment purposes.

However, when MLB decided to begin attaching home-field advantage in the World Series to the outcome in 2003, the competitive integrity of the sport came into play and created the opportunity for a mockery of this magnitude.

Obviously, it’s time for new commissioner Rob Manfred to rethink the entire process. Either the sport has to tighten the voting protocol and take a marketing hit or it must unlink the All-Star Game from the World Series. I would choose the latter and I’m not alone.

“I’ve felt all along that home-field advantage should go to the team that has the best (regular-season) record,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “There’s a novel thought. If I’m 95 (wins) and whatever in the National League and you’re 94 and something in the American League, I get the home-field advantage. I don’t care what league it is — put every possible premium on what you do in the regular season. Make every game matter.”

If only it were that simple. The intense competition for the billions spent on sports entertainment leave pro sports leagues with little choice but to follow the money. Major League Baseball has done a terrific job of maximizing its presence on the Internet, but that ability to exploit an expanded (and younger) audience has come with a price, and that price has been its long allegiance to tradition.

The first great example of that came back in 2002 when MLB partnered with MasterCard on a fan vote to determine the 10 greatest moments in baseball history. It was a nice idea, but no one should have been surprised when the list leaned more toward recent memory than historical accuracy. Five of the 10 moments had happened in the previous 17 years and perhaps the most dramatic single moment in baseball history — Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” — did not make the list.

Now, with the first all-Internet All-Star balloting, it’s not enough to get everyone possible to cast a legitimate vote. It’s about getting the most possible votes and visits to the All-Star ballot at MLB.com.

That effort has been wildly successful and has led to the possibility of eight Kansas City Royals appearing in the AL starting lineup — including light-hitting second baseman Omar Infante, who was outpolling 2014 batting champion Jose Altuve and has become the poster boy for those who want to see this travesty lead to real change in the selection format.

“What, do they have a virus in the computer?” Showalter joked during a recent pregame news conference. “There’s got to be. … Infante is the eighth (Royals starter)? What’s he hitting, .204? He must be having a heck of a defensive year.”

The players in the Orioles clubhouse see what’s happening, but they largely view it as business as usual. The All-Star fan voting has always been controversial and — this year — a series of early-season injuries did not leave a lot of O’s being disadvantaged by the K.C. ballot blitz.

“There’s always a way to beat the system,” relief pitcher Tommy Hunter said. “I think it’s sad. It’s obvious there need to be changes, and until changes are made people are going to find a way around things.”

Baseball ops chief Dan Duquette isn’t too worked up about the uneven All-Star playing field, but he wishes he had reason to be.

“It would have been nice,” he said, “if we’d had all of our All-Star candidates at the beginning of the year.”