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MLB’s Omar Infante Problem is Back

Getty Images
Getty Images

America’s favorite second baseman might just get another shot at the All-Star Game — oh, sorry, I mean Kansas City’s favorite. Omar Infante, the 34-year-old mainstay at the bottom of the Royals’ lineup, once again looks poised to land an invite to the Midsummer Classic.

The second baseman narrowly missed starting last year’s showcase, seemingly after frightening non-Kansas City fans into action: Infante was the worst hitter in baseball last June, and yet led American League balloting at the position until the final tally, when, following weeks of handwringing by media and fans alike, the Astros’ José Altuve overtook him. This year, Infante doesn’t look any more like an All-Star. Since April 16, he has batted just .211 with no home runs and six extra-base hits. There aren’t a lot of reasons you would want to see him in July — unless you have a fondness for royal blue.

And it appears voters do. This week brought the first 2016 All-Star ballot update, and Kansas City fans are again trying to make baseball’s biggest small thing their own. To say that the Royals dominated the early vote would be an insult to conquerors everywhere: K.C. players led two of seven position categories, and they’re in second in the remaining five. Catcher Salvador Perez leads all major leaguers with 1,094,942 votes; Infante pulled in 473,205, behind Altuve but well ahead of the Mariners’ Robinson Canó.

When it comes to All-Star voting, fans are more or less encouraged to do some ballot-stuffing: MLB allows people to vote “a maximum of 35 times.” This is not a league that tries to keep enthusiastic voters from having more than their fair share of say. Still, the process has long rested on a gentleman’s agreement. Finding and filling out a ballot is just labor-intensive enough that, in theory, you only vote if you’re really passionate about your team or a few of its specific members (the good ones!). You are urged, though not required, to vote for standouts in both leagues, and players are sorted by name and position, not team, making fully partisan ballots ever so slightly more challenging to fill out. Baseball’s clear hope is that fans will vote for players across the league — on their favorite team and off it.

So, Royals fans seemingly breaking bad and voting over and over and over — perhaps even beyond their already generous allocations, as some recent tweets by baseball writers suggest — breaks what you might call an unwritten rule. That’s especially true for players like Infante, Kendrys Morales (batting a dismal .193 this year), and Alcides Escobar (who is just behind the exceptional Xander Bogaerts and is trouncing reigning AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa).

There is good reason, of course, for Royals fans’ excitement. After a wan start to 2016 in which it went 16–18, Kansas City has gone on a tear, winning its past five straight, including three in come-from-behind fashion over the White Sox. And it’s natural the Royals would see a burst of support fresh off back-to-back World Series berths, plus a 2015 title parade that prompted a gathering so large in downtown Kansas City that you could (probably) see it from space.

But the Royals’ hold on the polls might not be long for this world. You might remember the team also dominated early All-Star balloting in 2015: In one update last June, Kansas City was slated to have eight (!) starters. Gradually, the Royals lost ground to other contenders; just three (Perez, Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain) ended up starting.

Will Infante make it to San Diego? Prepare for that to become a Serious Baseball Debate (again!) until the game is played on July 12. This isn’t going away — and, like last year, don’t rule out the possibility of seeing blue from orbit.