After giving the Midsummer Classic over a week to soak in, I think the game itself has become such a snooze to watch from home, even when it takes place in a city with historic significance like St. Louis.
I absolutely love the pre-game festivities like the Home Run Derby, Futures Game, and Celebrity Softball Game. But once the always great “tip of the cap” player introductions are done, I find myself searching for reasons to stay tuned past the fifth inning of a so-called “exhibition” game.
There should be no debate, baseball’s All-Star Game is superior to the other major sports as a spectator event. So why does it need extra incentive and drama?
Who cares if players leave in the middle of games or show a generally blasé attitude toward the event itself. The players have earned a three-day vacation from work, and if they choose to clock out early, who should tell them “no.”
Ever since Major League Baseball adopted the catchphrase “This Time It Counts,” the star-studded event has turned from a light-hearted display of baseball’s best talents to a more serious, meticulously played game that eventually runs out of superstar power from a position standpoint.
From a social viewpoint, the Midsummer Classic is an opportunity for the game’s elite to take a break from the 162-game grind and mingle on the national stage without acting overly competitive.
Before the unfortunate tie in the 2002 at Miller Park in Milwaukee, managers of both leagues showed more creativity with their lineups and match-ups. And the players followed suit by enjoying it and letting loose for a few days during their long, tiring seasons.
But now the stakes are higher, which means gone are the days of A-Rod switching positions with Cal Ripken Jr. or Larry Walker batting right-handed against Randy Johnson while wearing a backwards helmet.
If this were still the case, don’t you think AL manager Joe Madden would have pitched Boston’s Tim Wakefield?
I mean, the man is making his first All-Star appearance at 42-years-young!
How fun would it have been to see Wakefield’s knuckleball dance around the National League big bats like butterflies?
I tend to agree that Wakefield’s selection was more like a career achievement award, but he deserved to pitch, because he’s a two-time World Champion that plays for one of the most popular teams on the planet.
Since everything comes down to money and ratings, I felt like this move would have peaked viewer interest.
Instead, the audience’s interest was in steady decline after the sixth inning because of lesser-named substitutions, plus the game’s outcome has been trusted to the world’s best closers after six innings of play (ala Joe Nathan, Jonathon Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera).
Nathan, Papelbon and Rivera are three of baseball’s best finishers. But they leave me with little mystique of what might happen for the remainder of the game, because they’re so good at what they do.
While it’s smart baseball since the game has added pressure, this isn’t a strategy that’s going to grasp the majority of the viewing public.
Hence, if you're going to make take a conservative approach, make sure it involves players that are on teams more likely to reach the World Series. This is important, because these are probably the guys that the home-field advantage rule will affect come October 4th. And trust me, it makes a difference.
Home-field advantage in the World Series is a big deal. And it’s something that should be earned throughout the course of the season.
In the six Octobers since 2003 (when the new rule took effect), the home team has a 9-3 record in Games 1 and 2 of the Series. And going back to 1985, the team with home-field advantage has won 18 of 23 championships.
With this being the case and this year’s game tied 3-3 in the eighth inning, why was Heath Bell of the last-place San Diego Padres pitching?
It was a questionable decision on the part of Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel, because he could have used Brewers closer Trevor Hoffman in that spot. Or Manuel could have saved the suddenly-unhittable Ryan Franklin of the hometown Cardinals, who relieved Tim Lincecum in the third inning.
Both these guys were throwing lights-out during the first half of the season, but Manuel didn’t use them in the proper situations considering they’re both on playoff contending teams.
Ultimately, Bell gave up Baltimore’s Adam Jones’ game-winning sacrifice fly, and surprise, surprise, the National League loses another heartbreaking All-Star Game.
Somehow a Padre pitcher has managed to carry home the loss in three of the past four All-Star games. Yet we don’t see them playing deep into October.
Considering it was Bell’s first All-Star game (at any level, little league included), maybe he should have received the Andrew Bailey treatment and chilled in the bullpen with a smile till the game’s conclusion, just happy to get the invite.
But on the other hand, Bell should be an inspiration, because he made an All-Star team after spending the majority of the pre-season playing Nintendo Wii and lost 35 pounds.
Another reason why the Classic‘s flavor has lost some kick recently is because the greatest players often don’t help determine the game’s final score. The benches for either ball club lead the charge from the sixth inning on, which is when a lot of these games are decided.
And though he struck out in front of the hometown fans, Missouri native Ryan Howard came off the bench with a chance to break the 3-3 tie against Papelbon with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth. Now that’s drama for an All-Star Game!
It was one of the few times in recent memory that a former MVP was in a crucial situation that late in the Midsummer Classic. But since he didn’t deliver, we were all left with a sense of being cheated out of a possible all-time great moment.
Instead, we watch as the world’s greatest closer and ultimate professional Rivera was summoned in the ninth and promptly ended the game with an effortless 1-2-3 inning. The three batters Rivera faced were Justin Upton, Brad Hawpe, and Miguel Tejada, who all play for teams that are a long shot to participate in the ‘09 Fall Classic.
An even bigger long shot was the game’s MVP, or Ted Williams award winner, Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford, who became the first position player to win an All-Star MVP award without recording a RBI since Willie Mays did it in 1968.
Also, Crawford is the seventh recipient of the award since it was named honoring “The Splendid Splinter” in 2003. Of the seven MVP winners, six entered the game off the bench (excluding Ichiro in 2007) and six belonged to teams that didn’t reach the postseason (excluding JD Drew in 2008).
That’s why this game’s format change is such a silly, irrational quick fix by the Commissioner’s Office.
If the game was just an exhibition and didn’t have consequences later in the season, I wouldn’t have a problem with seeing the up-and-coming stars from below average teams like Upton, Jones, Texas’ Nelson Cruz, Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman or Houston’s Hunter Pence.
But this isn’t the case.
The modern All-Star Game mindset is a world removed from baseball’s golden days. In the last All-Star Game played in St. Louis, in 1966, the National League won on a Maury Wills’ RBI single in the 10th inning.
Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, and Ron Santo played the entire game for the NL squad, and Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Tony Oliva did the same for the AL team. Only nine pitchers appeared in the contest, and Denny McLain, Sandy Koufax, and Juan Marichal each pitched three scoreless innings.
I know, today’s managers would go insane if they saw their pitching aces pumping heaters and snapping curveballs for three innings after tossing 110 pitches four days prior. But I think it would be great for the country to see small market gems like Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Zack Grienke and Felix Hernandez each get two innings of work.
All these things considered, it was tough for me to pinpoint why exactly I felt this year’s game was such a dud.
It could have been because deserving players like Pablo Sandoval, Adam Lind, Matt Kemp and Javier Vazquez weren’t selected.
Maybe it was because at one point the parade of AL aces had retired 18 straight hitters, and the first seven of those NL hitters were .300 plus hitters. First time that’s happened since 1937, by the way.
Perhaps it was because I felt that the managers added one too many of their own players (ala Manuel and Jayson Werth).
Possibly it was because AL starting pitcher Roy Halladay forgot to pack a batting helmet in his suitcase. C’mon Roy. You’re killing me!
I even heavily considered Joe Buck and Tim McCarver as the eminent cause for my minor case of loathing. Especially since McCarver goes off on pointless tangents, plus Buck hasn’t realize he’s comedically inept.
Or could it be what bothered me most was the performance of crowd favorite Albert Pujols.
If I was sitting down the third base line at Busch Stadium, my attitude about this so-called “exhibition” game would probably point another direction. Instead I tuned in to FOX, only to select TiVo and go play NCAA Football 10 around the time Pujols booted a routine ground ball.
Even though Albert did have two great defensive plays later in the game, this was supposed to be his big shining moment.
All the stars were in alignment for the eight time All-Star, who‘s been the most consistent big leaguer since the turn of the century.
Since the 2009 All-Star Game was announced to take place in St. Louis, Pujols had waited for his chance for everyone to be focused on his town and success as a member of one of the most storied franchises in the sport.
The two time NL MVP and 2006 World Champion was eager to put on a show for the home crowd, but in the end, he was over aggressive and showed little of his trademark patience and plate discipline (Pujols has 34 home runs to only 38 strikeouts in 2009).
In the end, “The Machine” had little impact on the game’s outcome, but at least he saved President Obama’s “eephus” pitch from bouncing in the dirt.
So now what’s next?
If the game’s superstars don’t come up big on one of the game’s grandest stages, then how do we improve baseball’s ultimate showcase?
First, I propose Bud Selig admit that making the All-Star Game “count” was his worst resolution to a ratings dilemma. Following his apology, he’ll craft a new rule that awards home-field advantage in the World Series to the team with the best winning percentage of that regular and post-season combined.
And because Selig wants this game to matter, why should the Nationals, Royals, Pirates and other perennial losers all have a token representative?
The All-Star Game remains one of the greatest showings of equality in sports, with all 30 clubs assured of representation through a crazy and cool quilt of fan, player, and managerial input.
Some people might think this aspect needs to change, but I think it’s great for the game and its fans.
It’s wonderful because the fans rarely select players undeserving of the honor, plus the starters always try to put on a good show, considering the fans are the people who gave them the opportunity.
And finally, I realized why I was so disappointed in the game.
The player participants, coaches, fans, or the ballgame itself had nothing to do with the watered-down experience. It’s all because of the power suits upstairs in the front offices that forgot what our national pastime was built upon.
Baseball isn’t about money, endorsements, exposure, or even winning.
It’s about fun.
Fun is witnessing John Kruk’s heart skip a few beats when Randy Johnson zooms a fastball over his head.
Fun is seeing Tommy Lasorda coach third base while attempting to dodge broken bats.
Fun is watching the game’s greatest players in a different light than usual: when they are with their families and friends, and not consumed with the dog days left ahead of them.
Turn the All-Star Game from dud to stud again by making it what it really is. A day of enjoyment and memories for all parties involved.
But until Selig returns to the owner‘s box, don’t count on it.
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