84th MLB All-Star Game

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

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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.

Alex Rodriguez lands on the 15-day DL with a strained hamstring

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez follows through on a single to right off a pitch from Texas Rangers' Shawn Tolleson in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. The Yankees lost 3-2. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez strained his right hamstring running out a ground ball in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Orioles. The club announced it has placed him on the 15-day disabled list and recalled pitcher James Pazos from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Rodriguez lands on DL hitting .194/.275/.444 with five home runs and 12 RBI in 80 plate appearances.

Dustin Ackley replaced Rodriguez in Tuesday’s game, but the Yankees will likely cycle a handful of players in and out of the DH spot while Rodriguez heals.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Wednesday evening’s action

Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Nola pitches to a Milwaukee Brewers batter during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)
AP Photo/Tom Lynn
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We were treated to a handful of games this afternoon but we still have eight night games left. Let’s talk about the Phillies.

I wrote this preview of the Phillies just before the season started, predicting them to win only 65 games, which would mark only a marginal improvement over their 63-win season last year. In my defense, I wasn’t alone, as almost every expert as well as the projections had them finishing under 70 wins. And yet, here they are 27 games into the season with 16 wins. That’s on pace for a 96-win season. What the heck.

Aaron Nola pitched seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in a 1-0 victory on Tuesday, marking the Phillies’ sixth shutout of the year, the best mark in the majors. Even as the Phillies prepared to draft him, Nola was described as “major league ready” but no one expected him to be quite this dominant. In his first 19 major league starts, Nola has a 3.37 ERA with a 112/26 K/BB ratio over 117 2/3 innings. This year, not only has Nola been extremely stingy with the walks, but he’s been missing bats at an elite level. He’s only 22 years old.

Nola is joined in the rotation by Vincent Velasquez, the pitcher who highlighted the return from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade. The right-hander made headlines in April with a 16-strikeout performance against the Padres and currently stands with a 1.44 ERA with a 39/10 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings. Unlike Nola, Velasquez was billed as a future ace or a dominant eighth- or ninth-inning guy.

Then there’s Jerad Eickhoff, who came over in the Cole Hamels trade last year. Though he has a ho-hum 4.15 ERA, Eickhoff is occasionally dominant as evidenced by his 32/5 K/BB ratio over 30 1/3 innings. He has a pretty curve. Look at it. Eickhoff probably won’t be an ace, but he wasn’t considered to be a future mainstay in the rotation when the Hamels trade went through. All he’s done so far is exceed expectations. Nola-Velasquez-Eickhoff makes for an outstanding start to a long-term starting rotation.

The offensive tools aren’t quite where the pitching is yet for the Phillies, as third baseman Maikel Franco has wavered between looking like Mike Schmidt and looking completely lost at the plate. He has only five hits (zero home runs) in his last 37 plate appearances. Shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford isn’t there yet, nor is outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro, and outfielder Cornelius Randolph. There’s certainly a lot of hope on the horizon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Phillies fan, but wearing rose-colored glasses isn’t a crime of which I’ve been often accused over the years. It has been one headache after another being a Phillies fan between 2012-15. The front office under former GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. was stubborn and out of touch. Now, under new president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, the team has a goal and is seeing it through. No, the Phillies won’t win 96 games this year — they probably won’t even win 80 — but they’re certainly further along than a lot of us gave them credit for being.

The Phillies play game three of a four-game set in St. Louis tonight at 8:15 PM EDT. Lefty Adam Morgan will oppose the Cardinals’ Mike Leake.

The rest of Wednesday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) @ Cleveland Indians (Corey Kluber), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (CC Sabathia) @ Baltimore Orioles (Tyler Wilson), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Colby Lewis) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Rubby De La Rosa) @ Miami Marlins (Jose Fernandez), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Alex Wood) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Drew Smyly), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Clay Buchholz) @ Chicago White Sox (Carlos Rodon), 8:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Phil Hughes) @ Houston Astros (Mike Fiers), 8:10 PM EDT

The Marlins are suing a season ticket holder

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
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A couple of years back the Marlins threatened to sue a season ticket holder who didn’t want to pay because the view they had wasn’t what they expected and the Marlins wouldn’t accommodate their request to move. That apparently got worked out without litigation. A new dispute, however, is now a matter for the courts.

The Marlins filed a lawsuit a little over a year ago against a season ticket holder named Mickey Axelbrand. The suit is just heating up now because the Marlins didn’t move to serve the defendant with the suit until recently. The suit is a straightforward breach of contract case in which the Marlins say that Axelbrand paid for two season tickets on a two-year contract, covering 2011-12, and that Axelbrand didn’t pay for the second year. The Marlins claim that he owes the team $24K+ plus other damages. Seems straightforward, no? You don’t pay, you get sued, right?

Well, there are two sides to every story. I spoke with Axelbrand’s lawyer, Daniel Rose of Delray Beach, Florida, this afternoon. He says Axelbrand has been a Marlins fan since the advent of the team and was as season ticket from the team’s first season in 1993 until the dispute arose. He says that the reason Axelbrand withheld payment was because “most of the exclusive amenities were taken away,” from the ticket holder. Specifically, he said that the Marlins ceased operation of the complementary food service for this exclusive seating area in the 6th inning and that exclusive parking areas and an entrance area for people at this expensive season ticket level were made open to the general public. While that sounds like a first world problem to a lot of us, clubs like the Marlins market these super high-priced tickets to people like Axelbrand on the basis of such exclusivity and people like Axelbrand come to expect it. Not unreasonably.

The suit is in its early stages now and discovery is just getting going. Only then will the merits of the competing claims be determined. For now we just have a claim and a defense and the facts will fall where they may. For what it’s worth, Rose believes he can get financial discovery from the Marlins, opening at least part of their books. I’m a bit rusty by now, but for what it’s worth I’m not sure I see how it gets that far. At the very least, however, Jeff Loria will probably have to spend some time and money fending off discovery requests that go beyond the ticket office.

I think the larger takeaway here is that this appears to have been a dispute between a customer and a business that festered for at least three years and one presumes that there were complaints made to the team and a lot of back and forth before everyone lawyered up. One wonders how a baseball team couldn’t resolve this short of litigation if, as Axelbrand and his attorney claim, it was a dispute over amenities and the like. There are probably a million ways for a club to make this right with a fan that don’t require legal fees. I can’t ever recall a team suing a season ticket holder (update: Oh, yeah, that’s the ticket!) I suppose it happens, but if there’s one thing most teams do better than anything it’s accommodate season ticket holders with the sort of customer service niceties which are in the dang wheelhouse of professional sports teams catering to rich folks. Lunch with Giancarlo Stanton anyone?

As a matter of law it’s for the courts to decide. But I can’t help but wonder how this wasn’t decided as a matter of customer service a long time ago.

The Rangers trade Chris Gimenez to the Indians

Texas Rangers' Chris Gimenez, left, and Rougned Odor celebrate Gimenez scoring during the fourteenth inning of Game 2 in baseball's American League Division Series, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, in Toronto. Texas won 6-4. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The Cleveland Indians just announced that they’ve acquired catcher Chris Gimenez from the Texas Rangers in exchange for cash considerations.

Gimenez knows his way to Progressive Field. Indeed, this will be his third stint with the Indians organization. He was their 19th round pick in the 2004 draft, made his big league debut with the club in 2009 and stayed through the 2010 season. He came back in 2014 for eight games, now he’s back again. He has yet to play in 2016 due to a ankle issue. He as doing minor league rehab before being DFA’d by the Rangers yesterday.

Come back to Cleveland, Chris. You always will have a home in Cleveland.