Final Vote creates special moment in nominees' career
Competition launches last-minute voting campaigns for deserving players
Brandon Inge has played in the World Series. He has participated in the Home Run Derby, been on the field for no-hitters, played for three different organizations, logged nine 100-game seasons and 13 seasons of service time.
But there is one thing that never took place on the field that stands out to him as a crowning achievement. While with the Tigers in 2009, Inge was selected as one of baseball's five Final Vote nominees for the All-Star Game, to be played that year in St. Louis.
The Tigers' social media campaign, which has become a staple for all teams in the competition -- now in its 12th season -- joined with the Phillies and Shane Victorino ("Bran Torino" was the winning campaign), and both were chosen by the fans to represent their respective teams. And still Inge points to that as one of the pinnacle moments in his career.
"When the competition ended, I wrote a letter to everybody in the Tigers organization," said Inge, who's now with the Pirates. "I'm talking vendors, talking front office people. To see the support is just overwhelming. I was honored."
Alumni of the competition, which began in 2002 and has selected 22 winners from 14 different organizations, seem to agree that there is a unique honor to it. The All-Star Game selection is special in that players can be chosen by the fan vote, the player vote or the managerial selection. But with the Final Vote, it becomes a very public competition that pits teams and fans against each other in a virtual battle as five players from each league compete.
"We really didn't campaign that much," said Roy Oswalt, who won in 2005 with the Astros. "Houston doesn't really campaign. It was pretty neat that a lot of the guys on the team got on the computer and started voting, and it's really nice for the fans to vote you in.
"It can be tough when you're not from a large-market team. A lot of teams don't have as many fans as teams in the big markets, so some players that deserve to go might not get the chance. I think they ought to expand the roster by 10 players. A lot of guys that don't get to go, but should go."
Sixteen of the past winners were first-time All-Stars. Competitors have included future Hall of Famers (Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Todd Helton), Most Valuable Player Award winners (Jason Giambi, Larry Walker, Frank Thomas, Justin Verlander) and Rookie of the Year Award winners (Evan Longoria, Bryce Harper).
"It was really cool, especially being a rookie," said Longoria, who won in 2008. "Being able to see and feel the kind of love and respect that the fans have for you -- obviously because it's fan-driven, it's not something that's being determined by your peers. Being voted on by your peers is really, really cool. But like I said, being a rookie and not really realizing how much of an impact you've made to that point, it was really neat."
Of the 22 winners, 14 have seen the field. As a group, the hitters have gone 3-for-20 with two runs, 10 strikeouts, and one RBI. Victorino, in his first Final Vote appearance in 2009, started the game in center field for the National League. Chris Young took the loss in '07 when Ichiro Suzuki hit a two-run inside-the-park home run in the fifth inning. Longoria hit a ground-rule double in the eighth inning in '08 that tied the game at 3.
There have been two catchers, 10 outfielders, six infielders (all either first or third basemen), one reliever and three starting pitchers.
"It was great, because it was the year after we won the World Series, so all the White Sox coaches were there," said A.J. Pierzynski, who won the American League vote while with the White Sox in 2006. "There were a bunch of White Sox players there, so it was pretty special to be there with a bunch of your teammates and a bunch of guys you've done some special things with."
Victorino remains the only two-time winner (in 2009 and '11, both with the Phils). The White Sox have had the most candidates (10), while the Phillies, Red Sox and White Sox lead the way with three winners apiece. The D-backs (six) have had the most competitors without ever having a winner. Boston is 3-for-4 in its efforts to elect a winner.
"You want to make it in anyway, but when you get voted in by the fans against the players I was against, it was pretty cool," Pierzynski said. "They did a great campaign in Chicago. It was fun being able to go to that All-Star game and experience another one."
This year's field includes talent young and old, fresh and well-known. The AL competitors are Detroit's Joaquin Benoit, Toronto's Steve Delabar, New York's David Robertson, Texas' Tanner Scheppers and Boston's Koji Uehara.
The NL competitors are Washington's Ian Desmond, Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles' Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig and San Francisco's Hunter Pence.
Fan voting lasts through 4 p.m. EDT on Thursday, at which point a winner from each league will be announced and can begin packing his bags for New York. And perhaps there they will have the same sort of memorable experience Inge had.
"In my entire career in baseball, that is the coolest thing I've ever been a part of," Inge said this week. "It is something I will never, ever forget."