Sam Ross Jr.

Sam Ross Jr.

A side effect for the Pirates of decades filled mostly with mediocre baseball is that too often the franchise needs to rely on a charity representative to the All-Star Game.

Not so this season. This time the Pirates have an unquestionable All-Star in first baseman Josh Bell, who on Friday was announced as one of three finalists to be voted on as the starting National League first baseman.

Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman led that position’s voting with 2.241 million votes, to 1.831 million for Bell. Their offensive statistics are very similar. Either would be a valid starter and the other would be a legitimate pick to supplement the NL Star roster.

It’s a welcome change from those memorable years when the Pirates got a spot on the NL All-Star roster largely because every Major League team must have at least one, a quota system that runs contrary to the meritocracy basis of professional sports.

As recently as 2017, infielder Josh Harrison was the lone Pirates All-Star, picked in the midst of a season that would see him finish with a .272 batting average, 16 homers and 47 RBIs. Contrast that to 2016, when Harrison had hit .283 and driven in 59 runs, admittedly with fewer homers and runs scored, but hadn’t made the All-Star Game.

Harrison in 2017 certainly was far from the worst All-Star selection ever and some of his advanced metrics for that season were unexpectedly good. Still, Bell already this season has more homers and RBIs than Harrison had in all of 2017.

Bell also is hitting for a higher average and with 54 runs scored through Friday, he should meet and exceed Harrison’s total of 66 runs scored during 2017 in about another month of play.

The Pirates managed just one All-Star pick in eight of the nine seasons from 1996 through 2004. The lone All-Star in 1997 was Tony Womack, a speedy second baseman who hit .278 that season with 60 stolen bases.

The Pirates franchise, under a management group led by Kevin McClatchy, had slashed the payroll from $21 million in 1996 to $9 million in 1997.

Long-time manager Jim Leyland had moved on after the 1996 season, landed with the Florida Marlins, and promptly led them to the 1997 World Series championship.

Leyland’s reward was the chance to manage the NL team in the 1998 All-Star Game.

The current All-Star player-selection process is rife with foibles. It is a mishmash of a process that includes fan voting for starters; player, coach and manager voting for some backup/bench players; and some sort of All-Star squad manager’s picks in consultation with other league managers and the Commissioner’s office to fill out the roster.

And still baseball’s All-Star Game most closely duplicates the actual regular-season play of the sport when compared to its pro counterparts.

Unlike the NFL’s Pro Bowl, baseball’s All-Star Game can be held during the season without facing an overriding threat of injury. Baseball doesn’t have to imitate the NBA and leave the defense at home for this star showcase, nor does it have to relegate its All-Star contest to a gimmicky bit of reduced-force spectacle such as the NHL’s 3-on-3 tournament that stands as its all-star moment.

Still, even baseball’s All-Star Game has seen its intensity backed off several notches over the years. The teams still want to triumph, but you don’t hear as much about the league pride to be derived from winning this game.

Certainly we’re not going to see a Pete Rose type – not that there are any these days – bowl over a catcher like Ray Fosse at home plate, as happened in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game, allowing Rose to score the winning run in a 5-4 NL victory.

Fosse suffered a shoulder injury that saw his production tail off dramatically the remainder of that season.

Speaking of disappointing offensive production, both of baseball’s $300-million free agency twins, San Diego shortstop Manny Machado and Philadelphia outfielder Bryce Harper, have failed to impress the fans enough to secure sufficient votes to make the running to be selected as All-Star starters this season.

Score one for the fans.