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.

Wilson Ramos is seeking a 4-5 year deal

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 07: Wilson Ramos #40 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after driving in the game winning run with a single in the 11th inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on September 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. Washington won the game 5-4. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Wilson Ramos’ agent tells the Washington Post that Ramos still plans to seek a four- or five-year contract this winter in free agency despite the fact that he’s recovering from knee surgery.

Yikes, good luck with that. Ramos suffered ACL and meniscus tears in late September 26 and his rehab will extend well into the 2017 season, when he will turn 30. This coming off a career year that may or may not be a fluke. It’d be hard to commit to him for more than, say, three years under the best of circumstances but given the knee injury it seems unlikely he’ll get offers of that length.

My guess is that he’ll get a lot of two-year offers which give him some rehab time and then a chance for a make-good year with incentives or vesting options. A straight multi-year deal, however, may be very hard to come by for Ramos. Who may very well be a DH very, very soon.

World Series Reset: Indians vs. Cubs Game 3

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 24:  Chicago Cubs fans visit Wrigley Field on October 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs will face off against the Cleveland Indians in the World Series beginning tomorrow. This will be the Cubs first trip to the series since 1945. The Indians last trip to the series was 1948.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The Game: Cleveland Indians @ Chicago Cubs, World Series Game 3
The Time: 8:00 PM EDT
The Place: Wrigley Field, Chicago
The Channel: FOX
The Starters: Josh Tomlin (Indians) vs. Kyle Hendricks (Cubs)

The Upshot:

As you may have heard, this is the first time a World Series has been played at Wrigley Field in 71 years. Cubs fans have had a lot of time to think about this one, but I assure you, they’re ready. Wrigley is going to be complete bedlam. Or a complete train wreck. Depends on your point of view and, probably, what time you’re walking around Wrigleyville.

The cold and rain of Cleveland is being replaced by some moderately unseasonable warmth in Chicago today. It’ll be in the 60s this afternoon and isn’t projected to cool down after the sun goes down. Between that and clear skies, it should be a lovely night for baseball. Unless you’re a pitcher, that is: strong winds are forecast to be blowing out tonight. That bodes poorly for Indians starter Josh Tomlin, who gave up 36 homers this season, which was just one behind Jered Weaver for most in baseball. The Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks is far better suited to such conditions, as he’s a groundball machine. Look for the Cubs batters to be taking some big uppercuts all night.

The Cubs won’t have Kyle Schwarber taking uppercuts, at least not all game long, but he could pinch hit. The Indians are strongly considering putting Carlos Santana in left field so they can keep both his and Mike Napoli‘s bats in the lineup in the DH-free NL park. The Cubs won 103 games this year without Schwarber, so they should be OK, even if he was a nice addition in Cleveland. Santana, on the other hand, has played exactly one game in the outfield in his major league career. That came in 2012. Do not expect Santana to be . . . smooth.

Cleveland is still looking at pitching Corey Kluber on short rest in tomorrow’s Game 4 and, if it goes that long, bringing him back again in Game 7. The “win all of Kluber’s starts and steal one elsewhere” approach is defensible, but this matchup seems less-than-ideal for the Indians in the “steal one” department. Hendricks has been solid as a rock down the stretch and in the postseason. Between his vexing stuff and a crazy crowd at Wrigley tonight Chicago seems poised to grab the momentum in this series tonight.