|MLB has tried numerous gimmicks to try to make its All-Star Game matter more. (US Presswire)|
In another time, not so long ago, all you needed to do was get a few stars together and you had yourself an event. You didn’t even need a particularly good reason to get those stars together. Someone decides, “Uh, hey, let’s roast Jack Benny,” and you get Mark Spitz, Jack Carter, George Burns, Dick Martin, Jimmy Stewart and Dean Martin, and, voila, it’s a show. They didn’t even have to be big stars. Get four people who had been on television at some point, put them on a boat, and that was “The Love Boat.” Have them run an obstacle course, that was “Battle of the Network Stars.” Have two or three of them tell stories about their life, that was “The Tonight Show.” There is absolutely no question that Johnny Carson was an extraordinary talent — the best host in the history of television, I would say — but a good part of the magic of “The Tonight Show” was that it was the one place you could see the stars.
Now, of course, stars are everywhere. They’re cooking, they’re selling jewelry, they dancing, they’re talking politics, they’re doing cable TV shows, they’re on commercials, they’re coming to your home to do “Death of a Salesman.” There are obviously countless shows on now that are dedicated entirely to stars — heck there are entire channels that focus on stars. You want to see stars,* you can see them any time you want.
*Family went on the Paramount Studio tour when we were in California, and the tour guide told us that the reason actors are called “stars” is because of the stars in the Paramount logo. It is probably not true — it seems “stars” was in use to describe stage actors before Paramount was founded — but it sounds true, and the 10-year-old probably enjoys passing along this tidbit more than any other piece of trivia she has picked up so far in her life.
This 24-hour access we now have to stars is particularly true in sports. For a long time, baseball’s All-Star Game was the second biggest event of the season, behind only the World Series, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. The All-Star Game might be the only time your favorite player would be on national television. It’s hard to explain to anyone who grew up after the explosion of the baseball package, what that meant. As a kid in Cleveland, there was this amazing moment of pride when they would announce the Indians player on the team, even if that player happened to be Dave LaRoche (1976), Dennis Eckersley (1977), Jim Kern (1976 and 1978), Sid Monge (1979) and, Lord help me, Jorge Orta (1980).* They would show that guy with the Indians hat, and it was the biggest moment in the world. Hey, look, it’s our guy! On the screen! Right next to Reggie Jackson!
*That was my childhood, and looking back at that list, I’m AMAZED that I became a fan of the All-Star Game. Do you associate any of those players with Cleveland? Any of them? The Indians were not good during that time, but it’s also true the best Indians players of this five-year period that I consider my childhood were Buddy Bell, Andre Thornton, Toby Harrah, Mike Hargrove, Rick Waits and Rick Manning. My favorites were Duane Kuiper, Bell, Rico Carty and Joe Charboneau. None of them were picked for the All-Star Game during this time frame. How in the heck was I supposed to root for Sid Monge?
The All-Star Game was big because these are All-Stars. You didn’t need anything else. Anytime you could see the stars play, any sport, any reason, it was amazing. For me as a kid, the Pro Bowl was amazing. The East-West game was amazing. The NBA All-Star Game was amazing. The Superstars, The Superteams, Battle of the Sexes all these All-Star games and events were rare opportunities to see the greatest players in the world do their thing. Obviously, that particular thrill is gone now — in sports, probably, even more than in pop culture. Any time Matt Cain pitches, I can watch it. Any time Giancarlo Stanton comes to the plate, I can watch it. Any time Mike Trout is on first base, I can look to see if he steals second. I can also watch every Chris Paul pass, every Arian Foster run, every Jason Spezza shot, and, for the most part, every Tiger Woods putt or Rafael Nadal forehand. We live in a golden age for sports fans, but this does mean that seeing those stars now loses a little bit of their glamour and fascination.
We’ve seen the toll this has taken on exhibition events. There are no more “Superstars” — are you kidding me? Somebody could get hurt. Remember when Robert Edwards got hurt playing flag football on a beach? The instant that happened, the very instant we saw a gifted and promising professional get hurt playing football on a beach, casually stupid exhibitions featuring athletes ended. Heck, even the Pro Bowl the last few years has been like watching a walk-through practice. And even beyond the injury question is the pointlessness. A weekly show like the old “Home Run Derby” could never work now — heck the All-Star Game Home Run Derby feels like agony after the first hour. The Pro Bowl is dead. The NBA All-Star Game is the least interesting part of All-Star Weekend, and the same is true of the NHL All-Star Game.
Baseball’s All-Star Game is the one that has tried the hardest to stay relevant — in large part, I suspect, because it plays such a big role in baseball’s history. There is nothing in any other All-Star Game to compare with Carl Hubbell’s successive strikeouts, Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse, Ted Williams hitting the eephus pitch out, Dave Parker’s throw, Fred Lynn’s grand slam or Bo Jackson’s massive center field homer. I just came up with six All-Star moments off the top of my head — it would be difficult to come up with one in any other sport.*
*I do know Jeff Blake completed the longest touchdown pass in Pro Bowl history; not sure if that record still stands.
So, baseball has tried numerous gimmicks and rule changes to make the game “matter” more. It’s taken the fan vote online, it’s added a player vote, it’s created this runoff vote, it’s tried to keep the game provocative. Well, it has made the voting process more interesting, but it has done little for the game itself. I don’t think anyone is to blame here: The very purpose of the All-Star Game — the extravaganza of seeing the best players in one place — has simply lost most of its appeal. We are left with an exhibition game where players are run in and out like it’s a game of pickup basketball. Do I want to watch Justin Verlander pitch one meaningless inning or wait three days and watch him start a game that matters? Do I want to see Ryan Braun get an at-bat against some hard throwing middle-reliever with nothing on the line, or do I want to wait until the weekend when it counts? There is nothing baseball can do about this issue. The All-Star Game — like pretty much all of these one-offs — is a casualty of the time.
The big gimmick, obviously, is giving the winning league home-field advantage during the World Series. This is pretty ridiculous if you think about it for more than a few seconds and has been mocked appropriately but, beyond the mocking, I have to say I don’t really mind it. The old way of alternating home-field advantage was even more stupid. Sure, they could give home field to the team with the best record, but there are problems with that (strength of division and league are so different, plus it seems the late timing could create some issues). They could give home-field advantage to league with best record in inter-league play, but there are problems with that too. There’s no perfect way to do it, so I don’t really care if they give it to the All-Star Game winner. It’s just one step up from a coin flip, but maybe like Geena Davis says in “A League Of Their Own”: It’s an important step.
But saying that the home-field advantage gimmick isn’t particularly harmful isn’t the same as saying that it adds much fun to the game. I don’t think it adds anything at all. Watching the remaining All-Stars on the bench play in the last couple of innings with home-field advantage on the line is sort of the opposite of enjoyable for me; it’s like watching the bubble players in an NFL preseason game try to put the game-winning drive together (or stop it) for the right to play on Monday Night Football in December. It is incongruous and feels absurd.
This is a personal opinion: I would kind of like to see baseball go the other way. Instead of trying to add meaning to the game, it seems to me, it should celebrate the fact that the game doesn’t mean anything. If it does that, it can take some chances. I think the All-Star Game is the perfect time to try all sorts of things that fans might like to see, just once. It should try full-fledged replay. It should try robotic umpiring — with the umpires wearing special headphones that beep when a pitch is called a strike by the computer. It should play with a juiced ball one year, a dead ball another. It should choose a pile of All-Stars and have the two managers draft them. It should have players wear the old wool uniforms, it should have them use the old gloves, it should make it more interactive — there are a million things it could do to make the game fun and tie it to history without changing the rules. I think it should try all of them.
I’m not saying these things would work and would make the All-Star Game big again. I think that ship has sailed. Twenty-four million people watched in 1991, and 11 million people watched last year. That was the lowest rated All-Star Game ever, and I think it’s probably only going to get worse. But 11 million viewers is still a lot — it’s still the biggest sporting event on television between the end of the NBA Finals and the start of football — and I think there are ways to keep baseball fans at least somewhat interested. But I think it’s telling that, right now, the most fun part about the All-Star Game is arguing about it before it even gets played.
More on that later this afternoon.