84th MLB All-Star Game

MLB All-Star Game’s continued irrelevance could be saved by going international


MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – You might not be old enough to remember this, but Battle of Network Stars used to be a thing. Every now and again, a bunch of television “stars” – let’s just put “stars” in quotations because it wasn’t like Johnny Carson was out there – would gather together in some fairly exotic location like Hawaii and compete in various “sporting” events.

Yeah, we need to put “sporting” in quotations too because while they did have some actual sports in there like swimming and cycling, they also had pseudo-sports like tug of war and an obstacle course and so on.

It was entertaining at the time, partly because we were so starved for something resembling sports on television that we would watch anything, and partly because Howard Cosell was the announcer, and Cosell was incapable of lowering the volume or intensity for trivial competitions. With Cosell, everything was at least as important as the Super Bowl or the seventh game of the World Series. So you would hear him shout things like, “One thing you have to say about Patrick Duffy is that he’s a COMPETITOR!” or “Robert Wagner doesn’t know the MEANING of the word quit!” Sometimes it seemed Cosell got the irony. And sometimes, it seemed, he did not.

Point is that we as a country used to love stuff like that. Superstars competitions. Battle of the Network Stars. Battle of the Sexes. Match races. All-Star Games galore. You know, every year an all-star team of college football players would face against the Super Bowl champion. It is a very funny thing to see a young person discover THAT for the first time. Their faces go pale, and their eyes widen, and they sputter, “They … they … they … DID WHAT?” There are so many baffling things about the old College All-Star exhibition – injury risks for young players, injury risks for old players, absurdity of a Super Bowl team actually playing a bunch of college kids – that they don’t know where to begin.

But we can begin here: We don’t care about pointless games now. We just don’t. And the range of pointlessness has expanded – we don’t care like we did about horse races that are not the Kentucky Derby, track events that are not the Olympics, boxing matches that are not for some sort of championship. We’ve replaced all of that in the American psyche with stuff at least tangentially connected with sports we DO care about – stuff like the NFL Draft and recruiting and free agency and those viral stories of the day. We’d rather talk and tweet and text and argue about where LeBron James will sign or what nutty thing Johnny Manziel will do next than watch sporting events that don’t count.

And that brings us, yet again, to the All-Star Game.

Well, every single year we write about how much the All-Star Game has lost. Last year, about 11 million people watched – one-third of the audience from 1982, one-half of the audience from 1994, thirty-one percent down from five years ago. But perhaps the most sobering fact was reported by Sports Business Journal: The average age of the All-Star Game viewer was 53. That would be a five followed by a three.
Whenever I am in the younger demographic of a television audience, you have real problems.

Well, the All-Star Game just doesn’t make sense anymore. It made sense when few baseball games were on television and the opportunity to see the stars play was magical. It made sense when the American and National Leagues were truly separate – before interleague play, before free agency, before easy travel between the leagues, before teams switched leagues – and so the only time you might see Johnny Bench face Jim Palmer was in the World Series or All-Star Game. It made sense when we CARED about meaningless games just for the enjoyment of the moment.

All that stuff is gone. Bud Selig’s rather desperate effort to attach meaning to the game by having it determine World Series homefield advantage hasn’t added anything at all, largely because it doesn’t matter to anyone now. It won’t matter to anyone for months, and even then it will only matter to fans of teams actually in the World Series. And for teams in the World Series, it will seem impossibly stupid to have homefield advantage determined by some single in the eighth inning by an All-Star pinch-hitter off an All-Star middle reliever.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about it: What can be done to make the All-Star Game matter again? It’s still an amazing opportunity for baseball – the All-Star Game still has one of the best stages in sports. It’s a Tuesday night in July when NOTHING ELSE is going on. And, weirdly enough, I started thinking about lessons the All-Star Game can take from the Home Run Derby.

It’s weird because: I very much dislike the Home Run Derby. Almost everyone I know does. It’s a terrible event live. It’s a terrible event on television, viewed through the prism of Chris Berman shouting “back-back-back.” The Derby is repetitive and dull and generally annoying.
BUT … it does something the All-Star Game does not. It sticks in the mind. I was thinking about the Home Run Derby the last decade or so and found, to my utter shock, that memories flooded back. I immediately remembered Josh Hamilton’s home run barrage as he was completing a comeback that blew the mind – that was inspiring. Bobby Abreu hit a billion homers one year, that was pretty amazing. Ryan Howard … Prince Fielder … Vlad Guerrero … I remember these moments pretty vividly. I remember Robinson Cano winning with his dad pitching. I remember Robinson Cano flailing helplessly as Kansas City fans booed him for leaving hometown hero Billy Butler off the Derby team.

Then, I was thinking about All-Star Game memories from the last decade: I came up completely empty. I could not think of a single one – and I’ve BEEN to almost every All-Star Game in the last decade. The last vivid memory I have from an All-Star Game was the 2002 tie game calamity, more than a decade ago. And I’ve BEEN to the All-Star Games. Before that, I remember them stopping the game in the middle to honor Cal Ripken.

So why is the Derby more memorable to me (and the numerous others I asked) than the All-Star Game? I think it’s simply this: It’s completely different. The All-Star Game is just another game, one of 3,000 or so that will be played this year if you count spring training and the postseason. Yes, it has the best players (or some reasonable facsimile), and yes it has great history with Ted Williams’ game-winner and Bo Jackson’s bomb to center and Pedro Martinez’s two thrilling innings of strikeouts and whatever. But, in the end, it’s a meaningless game. And we don’t have any time for such things.

The Home Run Derby, for all its many flaws, is DIFFERENT. Same thing with the dunk contest, which is better than the NBA All-Star Game. It acknowledges that people have changed, that it isn’t enough to just get together a few familiar stars and have them play a game for no real purpose. We don’t watch sports like that anymore.

So, it’s really simple: Baseball can keep playing the All-Star Game as is, and fewer people will watch every year. Or they can learn from their own history and figure out a way to make the game memorable again.

* * *

OK, since you asked, here’s what I would do to make the All-Star Game matter again: I would put together one Major League Baseball All-Star Team and have them play a game against a Japanese League All-Star team.

Yes, of course there would be some logistical concerns. But there are so many good things about this game that I don’t even feel like there’s a need to sell it … but here are just three:

1. It would bring back some real meaning to the game. The thing about the old All-Star Game was that players used to feel some sense of pride for the league they played. The National League was older and more established, the American League was the upstart. Then the National League was much more active in integration, while the American League moved slowly. Then the National League won a bunch in a row. And so on. Now, nobody CARES what league they play in. Heck, the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers happily swapped leagues.

But if you had MLB against Japan … you better believe players would care.

2. The Japanese Leagues are obviously much, much better than people generally seem to believe in America. It’s obvious because in recent years players like Ichiro, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Koji Uehara and so on have become mega-stars in the big leagues. It would be so good for baseball to get the leagues closer together.

3. The All-Star Game would become a world-wide event in a way that it is not now. Baseball does not celebrate its worldliness as much as it should. There are several different languages spoken in every clubhouse. The best players bring new cultures and new styles into the sport. It’s funny; baseball’s championship has been called the World Series for 100 years, but in many ways the world was not invited. I think you begin by bringing in a Japanese All-Star Team, but over time you could add players from Korea and China and Latin American countries. Make it the World All-Star Game.

Anyway, it’s just one idea.

Champagne after a loss? Why not?

Astros Wild Card
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There was some hockey person last week arguing about how it was silly or untoward for baseball teams to celebrate clinching wild cards or other, less-than-championship-level accomplishments. Calling it bush league or lacking in act-like-you’ve-been-thereness or what have you. I can only imagine what he’d say about the Astros celebrating with champagne following (a) winning a wild card; and (b) losing the game which immediately preceded the celebration.

But screw him. Seriously.

I used to think that way. Indeed, if you search the HBT archives I’m sure there’s a post or two in which I disapprove of teams engaging in multiple champagne celebrations. But I was wrong about that and I’ve changed my mind on the matter over the past year or too. And on some other matters as well, all for the same reason: athletes are people just like us, not some avatars for our machismo and our fantasies. They’re people who have spent their entire lives devoted to their calling and do it under a lot of pressure and in the face of a lot of criticism and expectations from others. Why on Earth would anyone deny them their happiness upon the realization of an accomplishment?

This is even more true if you’re one of those misguided souls who erroneously believe that sports actually is separate from real life and believe them to be supremely and impossibly important. Even if you’re right — and you’re not — wouldn’t that give the athletes an even greater incentive to celebrate accomplishments? Funny how those people who who act as if sports is life and death would deny athletes their joy for defying death, as it were.

My view on the matter now is that if a guy hits a homer he should be able to celebrate it. If a pitcher strikes a guy out, he should be able to celebrate it. If a team makes the playoffs, no matter how low their seed and no matter the manner in which the accomplishment is achieved short of their competitors going down in a plane crash, they should be able to celebrate if they so choose.

So enjoy your hangovers this morning, Houston Astros.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights


Diamondbacks 5, Astros 3: The Astros lost but, in the course of the loss, they learned the Rangers won and that was all Houston needed to clinch the wild card. No better way to evade beat writers’ questions about what went wrong out there than to be in the process of getting roaring drunk and thinking about playoff baseball, right? And come back in a bit, as I’m going to have a post up later in which I explain why it’s totally cool for a team to have a champagne celebration after clinching a mere wild card. Which some people think is lame.

Rangers 9, Angels 2: Cole Hamels was supposed to be a pickup for 2016 but, in his final start of 2015, he pitched the Rangers to the division title with a complete game. Adrian Beltre‘s homer and three RBI and the Angels’ craptastic bullpen, which uncorked a six-run seventh inning, didn’t help.

Orioles 9, Yankees 4: Joe Girardi whined a bit about having to start this game at 3pm, saying that an all-important game 162 shouldn’t be decided in long shadows. Hey Joe: if you had won either Game 160 or 161 on Saturday this game wouldn’t have mattered to you. Or if you had used your roster in a manner that suggested some manner of urgency, which you didn’t do in any of the games in this series against Baltimore, it wouldn’t have mattered either. And, of course, it ultimately didn’t matter thanks to the Astros’ loss. Wild Card game in the Bronx tomorrow. Viva long shadows.

Dodgers 6, Padres 3: Clayton Kershaw faced 13 batters in his final tuneup before the playoffs. He struck out seven of them. Yeah, gonna say he’s tuned up nicely. That gave him 301 strikeouts for the year. Before yesterday baseball had not had a 300-strikeout pitcher since 2002, when both Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it.

Braves 6, Cardinals 0; Braves 2, Cardinals 0: After a span of 24 winless starts stretching back to May 17, Shelby Miller finally gets a win. This is exactly the sort of thing which should set him on the right track and really help him in his next few starts.

Oh. Wait. Damn.

Phillies 7, Marlins 2: The game didn’t matter a bit in the standings but it mattered for Dee Gordon, who went 3-for-4 with a homer and a double and ended the season with a .333 average and the batting title thanks to Bryce Harper‘s 1-for-4 in the Mets-Nats game. Gordon bomes the first NL player to lead the league in batting average and stolen bases (.333/58) in the same season since Jackie Robinson did it in 1949. Which, wow.

Pirates 4, Reds 0: 98 wins and the Pirates are still playing a one-and-done game on Wednesday and needed this win just to clinch home field for that game. Man, the NL Central was rough this year.

Rockies 7, Giants 3: Down 3-0 in the ninth, the Rockies rallied for seven. Pretty sure the entire 2015 Rockies highlight reel will just be a quickly-burned DVD of that inning.

Tigers 6, White Sox 0: It was a year to forget for Detroit, but at least it ended with a young pitcher acquired in a mid-season white flag trade pitching a nice game. The pitcher was Daniel Norris who allowed one-hit over five innings. The outing allowed the Tigers to think a bit about the future.

Indians 3, Red Sox 1: And on the last day of the season the Indians move above .500. What a weird year for them. Such a talented team which had so many issues putting it together in the first half and, later, when it mattered most.

Cubs 3, Brewers 1: Chicago ended the regular season with a three-game sweep in Milwaukee and forced the Pirates to win one for home field advantage in the wild card. Regular season momentum doesn’t really mean much in the playoffs, but if it makes the Cubs feel better between now and Wednesday to say they have it, all the better for them.

Royals 6, Twins 1: Like I said: momentum doesn’t much matter, but on the off chance it actually does, Johnny Cueto has to feel OK, having allowed one run over five innings. We’ll forget for a second that it came against a deflated, recently-eliminated, spit squad Twins lineup.

Mariners 3, Athletics 2: After the game Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon tossed his cap into the crowd. Which is fine as it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be needed it next year. Not that I can act all smug given that I was one of those loonies who though the Mariners would make the World Series.

Mets 1, Nationals 0: Like Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom was merely tuning up for the NLDS. He’s running just fine too, having tossed four shutout innings with seven strikeouts. They were no-hit innings too, actually, but it’s not like Terry Collins was going to leave him out there for that sort of thing with the playoffs looming. Curtis Granderson‘s eighth inning solo shot was the only scoring. The Nationals, finally, have been put out of their misery and can go home and wonder about what in the hell happened to them this season.

Rays 12, Blue Jays 3: Mark Buehrle was supposed to come in and pitch two innings to get his 200 for the year and then retire. Which would’ve been a neat thing for him given that he’d tossed 200+ innings for 14 straight years before that. He couldn’t escape the first inning, though, as first the Jays’ defense and then his ability to get dudes out disappeared. Oh well. One crap inning doesn’t negate a first-ballot Hall of Very Good career.

And with that another regular season is in the books. Another season of 8, 12, or (usually) 15-game days. Of flipping TV channels or radio stations or clicking between websites and between games. Games which, compared to the other 2,400 or so that happen during a season, mean nothing. But mean everything. Games which can be enjoyed and savored for a bit if your team won and enjoyed and easily forgotten if your team lost. The easy listening soundtrack of the past six months now fades away and in its place comes a 30-day burst of hardcore intensity.

And it’ll be a lot of fun. The playoffs are the point of it all, right? Assuming, that is, baseball has to have a point. Maybe it does, but it’s an assumption that, the older I get, is less and less necessary for me to hold in order for me to enjoy it.

Thanks for another good season, everyone.