For the players, All-Star week is a whirlwind

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SAN DIEGO — If you’re a player selected for the All-Star game, you don’t get much of an All-Star break. Indeed, from the final out on Sunday until the first pitch when games resume on Friday, the most rest some of these guys will get will be tonight, sitting on the bench during the actual nine innings of the All-Star Game itself.

The 79 players named to the All-Star team — those initially selected plus the subs and replacements — fly here after Sunday’s game, many from east coast locales. Many fly here with their families as well, this week being one of the few times many of them are able to do that during the season’s travels.  Sure, they get first class or charter service, are picked up in hired cars and likely had someone take care of all of their business at the hotel and stuff, but a long day of travel is still a long day of travel, especially after an early wakeup call for a Sunday day game.

Their official, public events seem fairly manageable. They had to be on-site at the hotel Major League Baseball is using as home base for media availabilities from roughly 10am until 2pm yesterday. Then it was over to the ballpark for the Home Run Derby, the public part of which lasted from around 5pm to 8pm local time. Today they will assemble for and ride in the All-Star Parade. They’ll be to the ballpark early this afternoon for the 5pm Pacific time first pitch of the All-Star Game itself. Then they’ll fly back home or off on a short trip before having to be at the ballpark on Friday.

There are a lot of hidden obligations in these few days, however. There’s a player’s breakfast this morning. For the Derby and for the game, MLB’s broadcast partners FOX and ESPN have rooms set up where they cycle players through for quick interviews, sound bytes and shots they use coming in and out of commercial breaks. Major League Baseball’s sponsors and charitable partners, as well as the individual sponsors and charitable partners each player may have, also ask for a great deal of time, including separately scheduled community events, some several miles from downtown San Diego. All of this is on a compacted schedule when the game is on the west coast and you, essentially, have three fewer hours to work with because people aren’t going to do stuff after the Derby or the Game. The most common thing you hear a player say when he’s wrapping up his mandatory interview time on media day is “where am I going next?”

On the record, the players rarely if ever complain. I asked several players about the whirlwind that is All-Star week yesterday. Dexter Fowler of the Cubs gave an answer similar to one I heard several times.

“It’s just a matter of how you take it,” Fowler said. “If you just go in and try to absorb everything and have fun you’ll be OK. If you think it’s going to be stressful, it’s going to be stressful.” Implying, of course, that some players without Fowler’s perspective do consider it to be stressful. When asked about how all of the activities impact game preparation he acknowledged that it can be hard but “these guys are pros.”

The closest I got to getting any player to acknowledge that these three or four days can be rather exhausting was when Orioles closer Zach Britton said that “once we get to the stadium and the media and stuff is gone and we have time to ourselves, it’s easier to turn it back on and get ready to play.” Suggesting, of course, that players have to turn it off in order to get through the All-Star hubbub. Britton wasn’t complaining, of course. He, like every other player I spoke with on media day is happy to be here. If any of this is an annoyance to them, even a petty one, they aren’t letting it show.

Behind the scenes, though, All-Star week schedules have often been a point of contention between the players and the league. A few years ago the union got the league to agree to move the media day activities, which used to be first thing in the morning to accommodate the press, TV and radio, closer to lunchtime to allow players to actually get a decent night’s sleep following their Sunday arrival. Might there be other changes to the schedule as MLB’s marketing and media initiatives continue to grow and as more and more is asked of the players?

“Once we wrap up here, we’ll revisit,” Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark told me yesterday. “The All-Star break is the one time these guys get to recover,” Clark said, acknowledging the long grind of the season. “There were, and still are, a lot of ‘asks’ of them and their time.” Clark referred to players selected to the All-Star Game needing “to take that deep breath” at times in order to stay focused and to not got pulled in too man directions during the week.

Clark noted that, in 2011, the league and union negotiated some changes to the All-Star schedule, specifically to address that grind, including the moving of time press conferences. Obviously, however, the All-Star Game festivities are only getting larger, more heavily promoted and sponsored and the “asks” of the players will only increase. Clark is well aware.

“There’s no doubt, the industry and the marketing world itself has become more complex. At both a team level and at a national event, the asks are extraordinary. It’s gotten far more complicated. The asks have increased ten-fold.” Clark said the union “has needed to become a bigger part of the conversation in order to protect the guys who come here.”

And, it seems, they will this summer and this fall.

“As you know, we’re in the middle of a bargaining year now and All-Star Game events, in general, will be a topic of discussion. Rest assured, the gist of your question is one that we pay a lot of attention to with respect to the asks of the guys who come here,” Clark said.

It’s probably worth noting, however, that the players and the union will, on some level, always complain about being asked to anything outside of their normal routine. The fact is, though, that Major League Baseball’s so-called “jewel events” like the All-Star Game and the World Series are the events that draw the most eyeballs for baseball, resulting in those national TV and sponsorship deals which, however annoying, go a long way toward paying the players’ salaries.

Maybe doing a meet-and-greet with the families of T-Mobile executives and signing autographs on magenta balls is annoying, but it’s also a feather on the goose that lays the golden eggs. When push comes to shove in the Collective Bargaining Agreement talks, is anyone really going to go to the mat to change, say, media day report times or to put a cap on how many community activities players must attend? Of course not. Partially because it’s not big compared to other labor issues, partially because players understand the importance of these things.

Still, the grind is real. Both the regular season as a whole and the whirlwind that is All-Star week. In looking at it all, I’d think the answer can be found less in micromanaging player schedules and more in simply adding a day to All-Star week. It’d solve that problem with the Futures Game we discussed the other day, giving it its own time. It would likewise allow players to take that breath Tony Clark mentioned and maybe get a chance to enjoy this event as much as all the fans who come here do.