July 13, 2006
When I was a kid, I loved Major League Baseball's Midsummer Classic. I remember seeing Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith join defensive forces up the middle. I remember Cal Ripken being the All-American hero and Randy Johnson scaring the hell out of John Kruk. It was fun; we the fans got a chance to witness fantasy matchups and celebrate the game. But something seriously wrong has happened to the All-Star Game during the reign of Bud Selig, and it goes well beyond his asinine decision in 2002. Under his watch, the game has consistently been in flux, mostly due to his leadership abilities, or lack thereof. Simply put, Bud Selig has rarely "gotten it" when it comes to the Midsummer Classic.
The point of the MLB All-Star Game from the day of its inception (as a device to promote baseball at the 1933 World's Fair) has been to celebrate the game of baseball. You do not glorify a game by hosting an event which violates the established rules of the game; in effect the opposite occurs and you vulgarize the game. The gold standard for what is acceptable All-Star contest behavior should be whether it could normally happen at an official baseball game. Beyond that, have as much fun as possible, but in this writer's opinion, to openly violate rules and established codes of conduct moves the game swiftly from fun celebration to joke.
This happened twice at the 2002 All-Star Game. The lesser-recognized offense happened when Barry Bonds ran onto the field and embraced Torii Hunter after the latter robbed him of a home run. It was a stupendous catch, and it made for a great moment, but bearhugging an opponent is not baseball; it's material better suited for an MTV Celebrity Softball game. While not directly Selig's fault that players took a more jocular attitude towards the game as the years passed, his actions did little to promote otherwise.
In the days of Johnny Bench, Billy Williams, and National League dominance of the All-Star Game, the players took the contest seriously in large part because the two leagues were legitimately and genuinely separate entities. Players, especially elite ones, generally spent their whole careers with one team and exclusively played against the other teams in their league. While Bud had no control over the advent of free agency, he did officially merge the two leagues under the one umbrella of Major League Baseball (e.g., by eliminating League presidents), initiate interleague play, and allow one team to even swap leagues. These aren't all necessarily bad things, but they do show that his attitude partly undermined the competitive fire he claims to want in the All-Star Game. Even worse than a lack of competitive fire, his actions have consistently shown that he has no idea how to properly celebrate the game.
First there was the tie. Given the choice between following the rules of baseball and violating them, he chose violation. In a knee-jerk reaction rooted in fear of vengeance from the baseball gods, he then decided to make the game "count" by having it establish home-field advantage in the World Series. It has been well chronicled why this is equally or even more ridiculous than flipping a coin or simply having it alternate every year, so I will not dwell on the reasons. Instead, I will point out that his decisions put the game into flux. What exactly is the All-Star Game? Is it purely an exhibition? Is it to celebrate the game like it always has been and should be? Or is it an all-out competition?
Bud can't make up his mind. On one hand, he pushes the idea that it counts, that he wants players to try hard, and he rightfully speaks out against Manny Ramirez not showing up. This suggests he really wants it to give the game meaning. But then, Tuesday night, after the fourth inning, they stop the game cold, clear the field and have a ceremony giving Roberto Clemente's widow a meaningless plaque. It goes without saying that Roberto Clemente is a legend, but if this game is now supposed to have something on the line, why are we doing this? He's been dead over thirty years, he's already in Hall of Fame, and he's widely-known as the hero of Latin American baseball. There's no valid reason to stop a game that is supposed to "count," that is being marketed "real" baseball. Putting the ceremony after the fourth inning disrespects the game and makes it appear even more of an exhibition than it was in the 1990s. If you want to honor Roberto Clemente, that's fantastic, and I'll be 100% on board. Just do it before the game. It'd be equally memorable if done right (remember the Ted Williams moment?) and it wouldn't interrupt the game you're ostensibly honoring.
By pushing genuine meaning and competition at one moment, then jumping to superficial displays and gimmicks the next, Bud Selig vacillates between two extremes that seem to oppose each other. His stance on any given day seems to be symbolic of his tenure—do whatever his whims tell him with only rhetorical regard for the "good of the game." Bud just doesn't "get it." He doesn't understand what used to make the All-Star Game a "Classic," or how to properly honor a sport, or even hold a firm stance on anything. Perhaps the natural progression of time moved the game away from that "classical" model. Perhaps, as Keith Olberman and others have suggested, the All-Star Game is no longer necessary. Perhaps it's okay if the game slips into Pro Bowl-like irrelevance with 40-man rosters, recycled players, and worthless celebrations on the field. Or, alternatively, perhaps it's okay after all for the game to have playoff implications.
But please, refrain from giving me both sides of the coin. If it's truly going to decide home-field advantage, let the players or teams in the respective leagues vote for every single roster spot, including the manager. Get rid of the rule requiring a representative from every team. Better still, play it at the beginning of the season so there's no interference with the pennant race. On the other hand, if it's going to be an exhibition, let it be a total exhibition and get rid of the "it counts" rhetoric. Personally, I don't feel that there was ever truly a need to diverge from the classical model I explained above, to simply celebrate the game in an exhibition using one simple standard for behavior. But Bud Selig could never grasp that concept, and now he gives us the worst of both worlds.
Tuesday night was a fantastic night for baseball—a quick, well-played, dramatic All-Star Game. But it would have been much better had the decisions of the manager of the NL's 10th-best team not cost his league home-field, or if there weren't meaningless pomp in smack-dab the middle of the game.
Ideally, both would be gone. I'd settle for one, but I fear neither will happen and the All-Star Game will remain in vacillation between two unnecessary extremes. Oh, Bud Selig, what have you done with my All-Star Game?