Josh Hamilton, 2009 American League All-Star.
Take a minute to soak that in, after you consider what he has been doing season so far—chiefly, being injured—and then try to tell me that "This time, it counts."
At least that's what Major League Baseball would have us believe.
Don't get me wrong: I am a huge fan of Josh, and I was fortunate enough to watch him patrol my hometown's outfield (Cincinnati, if you were wondering)—and I consider his story to be awesome, in the most literal sense.
Beyond that, Josh has transformed himself into someone who could be called a genuine "role model," and definitely a testimonial to the man's faith and determination.
Despite his touching story, this in and of itself should not mean that the Texas outfielder deserves to start later today, when the game's outcome isn't quite so trivial.
However, it is precisely that; his newfound popularity amongst Americans of all walks of life has undoubtedly garnered the votes to make him a starter. But wait, you might say, he couldn't possibly be voted into the All-Star Game, a game that "counts," solely based on his life's events? Surely there was another motivating factor?
My response would be, you are 100 percent right.
But the answer is the 2008 Home Run Derby.
Were I old enough to be a betting man, I would, in fact, put my money on his performance at last year's Home Run Derby as being a huge part of his election—and what a performance it was.
Hamilton's record-setting display of power in Yankee Stadium instantly won him thousands upon ten thousands of fans, despite the fact that he didn't actually win the Derby—in fact, most people probably have no idea who the real winner was (which proves its ultimate irrelevance, but that's a different subject altogether).
After all, it is a clip of Hamilton's performance that is included in the "Fox Sports Presentation" montage, not Justin Morneau's (See? You forgot who it was, didn't you?).
In effect, I've always thought that the ASG was certainly an exhibition. No doubt this was the prevailing thought when baseball fans chose Willie Mays to represent the National League in the '72 and '73 All Star Games, even though his stats were nowhere near what would usually be considered "All Star Material."
However, the sublime Mays was at the end of his career, and back in the city where he started (this time as a Met)—the fans felt he earned it.
When you think about it, the game shouldn't be anything more than an exhibition—keep in mind that this weekend is something of a reprieve for the ball players (apparently, Pete Rose missed this concept)—camaraderie and fun should be emphasized, not home field advantage.
The fans should be able to choose their own heroes and stars without having to consider the month of October. The game also provides a national launching pad for the budding, rising stars-in-training—the precise reason some of the younger, lesser-known guys should be included in the game as well.
However, the blame cannot be put on the fans, nor should it be put on the managers, regardless of the glaring omissions that may have made (which will inevitably occur every year).
Nay, to find the cause, we must go to the source.
In 2002, the Commissioner of Baseball, Mr. Allan Huber 'Bud' Selig, found the All Star Game in the middle of 11th inning, tied at 7-7, with each team possessing one remaining pitcher—the game could easily have been continued, or a non-conventional conclusion reached (After all, it WAS an exhibition).
However, good old Bud decreed that, if not resolved in the bottom half of the frame (spoiler alert: it wasn't), then the game would end in a tie—which is, so I've heard, like "kissing your sister."
Of course, all of the fans watching (in disgust, at that point) this game saw it for what it truly was—a complete shenanigan perpetrated by the sole decision-maker in the matter.
The worst part of it is, Selig's poor spot-decision making marred an otherwise jovial and fairly entertaining All-Star Game—the National League jumped out to an early lead, only to watch as the junior circuit battled back against "invincible" closers.
One of the most iconic plays of the game came when Barry Bonds blasted a first inning pitch over the wall in right-center field—until Torii Hunter pulled it back into the park— prompting Bonds to playfully run out and pick up Hunter as he left the field (Bonds later hit a HR that not even Hunter could grab).
In that moment, you could see it in their eyes: the big guys were actually having fun. Its a crying shame that the fun had to be co-opted by the aforementioned poor choice by Bud.
Astoundingly, rather than taking the blame upon himself for his bungle, he instead blamed the "poor use of pitchers" which supposedly didn't allow for more innings—in essence, Bud blamed the managers.
Upon realizing that his decision was a huge PR debacle, the Good ole Commish forever warped the game by making it "count," warping the entire process of selecting the players—Selig wanted the fans to make "informed decisions" to elect the best players; if this was his ultimate goal, wouldn't he have left it in the hands of the sportswriters, men and women whose JOB it is to follow sports?
After the dust had settled, a Catch-22 was implemented in determining the Midsummer Classic of America's Pastime.
On that now-infamous evening of July 9, 2002, sports nation turned its eyes toward Milwaukee—and watched in disgust as Bud sullied the annual exhibition where fans could view one league pitted against the other. Now, on the morn of the All-Star Game, the fans should echo the refrain sung by the baseball powers-that-be:
"This time, it counts,"
...as one in your loss column, Mr. Commissioner.