Fifteen years ago, Mother Nature interrupted my favorite night of the summer. It was July 9, 1996, and my 14 year old self was getting ready to watch the MLB All-Star Game. Until, that is, a wicked thunderstorm ran through my neighborhood and knocked the power out for the evening. I was forced to listen to the All-Star Game on a radio. Part of me enjoyed the throwback nature of the evening. But a larger part of me really, really disliked not being able to see my favorite players in action.
Fast forward to today and it boggles my mind that I ever cared about the All-Star Game, in much the same way I can't believe I'd sometimes have to wait two days to figure out a score from the West Coast or that Sega Genesis was considered the greatest video game system in history. Things change – I find out scores instantly and video games can be breathtaking – yet we foolishly hold on to relics from the past for no other reason than tradition. There are few examples better than baseball's All-Star Game.
It is amazing how much the world can change in 15 years. In 1996, there was no doubt the All-Star Game still mattered. There was no need to artificially pump it up by adding the ridiculous “winning league gets home field for the World Series” gimmick. Even the Home Run Derby was an afterthought, a competition held Monday afternoon that ESPN ran Monday evening in tape delayed form. The event was in its infancy and it was cute, enjoyable yet still just a preamble to the game itself.
And the game itself, no doubt, meant a lot, especially to a 14 year old in Connecticut whose two favorite players, non-Mets division – Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey, Jr. -- played on the other side of the country. In 1996, there were few games outside of your local coverage available. ESPN had Wednesday night doubleheaders and Sunday night baseball. Fox had a Saturday game like it has now, and it was just the usual Yankees or Red Sox game I'd be able to see anyway, like it has now. The stars of other teams in other divisions were still almost legend. I liked Piazza but only got to see him play live a handful of times a year, ditto for Griffey. Even interleague play was still in its infancy and free agency had yet to really destroy the division between the American and National League.
In 1996, it was still a big deal to see stars from the different leagues on the same field. It still meant something to the fans. More importantly, it still meant something to the players.
For this year's game, at least 15 players voted or selected to the game will not play. Of those, only four are actually on the disabled list. Some are resting nagging injures. Some are starting pitchers who started on Sunday – teams' latest way to get around having its pitchers pitch during the game. In all, more than 60 players will get the designation of being an All-Star and, frankly, none of them really care. If they don't care, why should I bother watching?
If you go back to the 1996 All-Star Game, you will see that only four players missed the game and each was voted by the fans – Ken Griffey Jr., Matt Williams, Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas. And after doing a bit of research, I found that all four were either on the DL or, in the case of Frank Thomas, had just suffered an injury that week that would place him on the DL in the week following the All-Star Game. Nobody was resting. Nobody chose family time. Everybody wanted to be in Philadelphia. They wanted the national exposure that players take for granted in 2011. They wanted the pride of winning the game that players don't care about in 2011.
Although I'm comparing 2011 to 1996, we all know the All-Star Game died in 2002. It had been on a descent following the last glorious affair in 1999, when Pedro Martinez put on a show, Mark McGwire hit a bunch of homers in the Home Run Derby that made the event the real star attraction of the festivities and Ted Williams made his last profound baseball appearance. Since that moment – a night when the stars wanted to play to show off for Teddy Ballgame – the game floated into irrelevance.
I've thought about the 2002 MLB All-Star Game more often than I should. I was going to college in Washington, D.C. at the time and, surrounded by Yankees fans, the 2001 World Series had a very significant impact as we tried to comprehend and move past 9/11. I know that's not exactly unique but in my memories, there was 9/11, two hazy months and then the 2001 World Series. It helped us move on. Even though I was rooting for the Diamondbacks*.
*One of my roommates was an irrational Diamondbacks fans from Phoenix. I always hated the Yankees. I knew I probably shouldn't root against them but my buddy Fish gave me a reason. It just felt like he deserved a win. Phoenix, by the way, is an underrated city for sports trauma. The Cardinals have always been terrible, then lost its one Super Bowl in heartbreaking fashion. Arizona State football is usually awful, then Jake Plummer comes along and they lose a national title and the Rose Bowl in heartbreaking fashion. And the Suns? Heartbreak after heartbreak. Fish needed that one. And even in defeat, the Yankees still got to make the “Tales of Triumph: The 2001 World Series” documentary for the YES Network. Everyone wins.
So in July 2002, my friends and I had come back to baseball in a big way. Then the tie happened. Why did it happen? Because no one cared about the game. The starters didn't want to be there and most were on their own private jets by the fifth inning. Each pitcher got shuffled in the game to get his name in the box score like it was a Little League game. The powers at be were telling fans, well before Bud's decision, that the game meant nothing. The tie was just the salt in the wound, the nail in the coffin, the whatever metaphor you'd like to use – the MLB All-Star Game was now like all the rest.
And that doesn't necessarily make it a bad thing. It just doesn't work for baseball. No one has every considered the All-Star games in other sports to mean something. It's not like people actually care if the NFC will take down the AFC in the Pro Bowl – I defy you to find any football fan who can name me the last five winners of the Pro Bowl. Or the NBA All-Star Game. Or the NHL All-Star Game. Some smaller leagues have noticed this and done something about it, like MLS, which collects its best stars and plays against Manchester United or another top-flight European club in an exhibition. It's fun. It's exciting. And it's an exhibition.
For baseball, its All-Star Game simultaneously is an exhibition yet can't be an exhibition. It's an impossible spot to be in and it's one that Major League Baseball has failed to navigate. Putting the World Series homefield advantage on the line has only made the situation worse, as players don't play and the farce is revealed in full. The league has even managed to destroy the Home Run Derby, by making it too long with too many rounds and the event now drags on for three-plus hours as fans are subjected to the torture of Chris Berman. Mark Teixeira proved how little that event means when he decided on three days with his family rather than spend it trying to hit home runs Monday night.
It's time for Bud Selig to stand up and make the boldest decision of his career – and cancel the All-Star Game. With every passing year, the MLB All-Star game fades further into irrelevance. You can still pick the All-Star teams but don't bother with the game. All today's players want, and maybe deserve based on the insanely long season with tremendous travel demands, are three days off in the middle of the season. Reward the players with the time off.
It does baseball more harm than good to trot out two All-Star teams – you know, minus 15 of the best – and treat it like it's the same event that took place in 1941 or 1971. It's not. Times change. We don't read newspapers anymore. We don't play Sega Genesis anymore. And we don't circle the second Tuesday in July anymore. It's over. Let's move on.
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