Why should we care about the All-Star Game?

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The All-Star teams were announced yesterday and the conversation has moved on to snubs and oversights and will soon turn to hype. And I’m having a hard time caring about any of it.

As for the snubs: before you get too animated about Blake Snell (or whoever) not making the All-Star team, remember that the rosters are so big now that it’s hard to truly “snub” someone. A good many guys beg out because of injuries — or “injuries” — a lot of pitchers will not be eligible for having pitched in games that count this coming weekend and thus, ultimately, all of the guys who truly want to be there and deserve to be there are actually there.

While we’re at it, here’s an inside baseball media tip for y’all: All-Star “snubs” is a topic far more driven by editors looking for content on platforms such as this one than it is driven by fan and reader interest. I’m old enough to remember when no one ever talked about let alone cared about “snubs.” That era ended around the mid-90s when every media company put up a big sports page on the Internet. Big sports pages call for a lot of written product, even when there is not news, and as a result invented the idea that there must, at all times, be some sort of notable event or controversy occurring. There are a lot of these things, but my little corner of the industry’s contribution to this is the way in which it has conditioned you all to care about snubs the morning after the All-Star rosters are announced. It’s not reflective of the inherent newsworthiness of the notion. It’s stuff to fill the space. I’ve filled a lot of space with that sort of thing in the past and I’ll admit that it’s not among the most memorable space-filling I’ve done. Not that I need to tell you that.

Snubs aside, let’s talk more generally about “deserving” or “undeserving” players who made or did not make the team for a second. I saw this tweet a little while go about Sal Perez’s presence on the team:

Yeah, that’s pretty questionable. I think it boils down to the fact that players value very different things in other players than fans do. Indeed, they value very different things than playing ability itself. Through their quotes and behavior it’s pretty clear that leadership and not being a jackwagon in the close quarters of airplanes and clubhouses they all share over the course of eight or nine months matters a lot. Players like players who “go about their business” the right way. Not exactly what fans are looking for in the midsummer classic. Maybe they can have a “Go About Their Business”-Star Game one day. There’d be a lot of Giants and Cardinals on those teams I figure.

That observation aside, I’m finding myself not really caring too much about the composition of the All-Star teams and their electorate and whether a guy has a bad stat line heading into it. Indeed, despite years spent parsing April-June stat lines and making impassioned arguments about who should be on an All-Star team and who should not, my thinking on this has undergone a pretty radical shift in recent years.

It took a while, but I’ve come around more to the idea that the All-Star teams should have big stars on it, not guys having good seasons. When the history of baseball between the years, oh, 2010-2020 is written one day, Sal Perez will loom larger than, I dunno, Max Stassi or whoever else should have his slot on the merits. As such, maybe it’s better for Perez to have that slot. Al Kaline was an All-Star in 1974 and he was mostly dead by then, but I bet some 55-year-old guy is walking around right now telling people he saw Kaline in the All-Star Game that year and, boy was it special. That’s the lasting and valuable stuff about baseball, right? Does anyone have the first clue as to who was “snubbed” for Kaline to get that spot? Didn’t think so.

I’ll stop for a moment and acknowledge that that’s all rather grumpy-sounding. I’m sorry about that. But hold on to your butts, because I’m about to get grumpier.

Why do we even have an All-Star Game anymore? What was its value and what were its original justifications for existing? Do those justifications still hold now?

The first All-Star Game was not, actually, the 1933 game which launched the annual series we have today. It was in 1911. It was a benefit game for the family of the Cleveland Naps pitcher, Addie Joss, who retired in 1910 due to a bad elbow and then died unexpectedly in April 1911 due to tubercular meningitis. It was just an American league affair, with players from the eight junior circuit teams converging on Cleveland for the game. It raised the modern equivalent of about $350,000 to cover Joss’ medical bills and to help provide for his family. Pretty noble, eh?

The 1933-present version was conceived by a Chicago newspaper editor after the mayor approached the paper for ideas of a big sporting event to serve as an attraction for the 1933 World’s Fair, which was taking place in Chicago. A baseball game was the winning idea. In addition to the Fair promotion, the game was seen as a morale-booster for a Depression-scarred country and, like the Addie Joss game, had a philanthropic purpose, with proceeds from the game going to a charity for disabled and needy major league players, of which there were no small number back in those days.

Over time the All-Star Game’s longer-lasting reason for being became clear: a showcase of talent and the unique opportunity for players from the National League to face off against players from the American League. There was no interleague play outside of the World Series, of course, and the reserve system greatly limited any given player’s — and any given fan’s — exposure to half the league. On that basis, the All-Star Game remained not just a welcome novelty, but also a point of competitive pride for players and fans alike. That’s how most of us were introduced to it, at least, and on that basis it was pretty cool. That basis, however, began to erode eventually.

With the advent of free agency, cable television and, most significantly, interleague play, we don’t have much need for that kind of thing anymore. The NL takes on the AL almost every single day of the season, at least in one game, and there is no team which has not played every other team in the other league at this point. Every game and every highlight of every game is available at the click of a button, and if you haven’t seen a big star who is not on your local nine it’s because you have aggressively avoided doing so.

That league pride and the novelty of it all is no longer important can be seen in what happened with the now-abandoned home field advantage in the playoffs incentive (“This time it counts!”). That was started as a reaction to the embarrassing tie game from the 2002 All-Star Game, but it was all sold via appeals to league pride. No one ever really cared, though, and, in fact, it was an insult to fans and players that something as important than that was decided by something as unimportant as the All-Star Game. It was simple, really. In a world where there is no novelty to interleague matchups there is no compelling reason for a special one in the middle of the summer.

Well, one reason: Marketing and money.

Major League Baseball does not care if you vote 100 times for the All-Star Game and they do not care if you vote 1,000 times for the “Final Vote” candidates. Why? Because every time you do that, you visit a website sponsored by Camping World and Camping World pays Major League Baseball a lot of money for that. The same goes for nearly every other planned event between now and next Wednesday.

Major League Baseball wants you to take note of the Armed Services Classic presented by T-Mobile. They want to promote the Scotts MLB Pitch, Hit & Run National Finals. They want as much coverage as possible of the Gatorade All-Star Workout Day featuring the T-Mobile Home Run Derby, the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game and the MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard. Not just because it’s good for them to have you watching events that vaguely involve baseball, but because if you do so, they make a lot of money from corporate sponsors and television networks.

Yes, there are still many charitable aspects of the forthcoming festivities — anti-cancer efforts, families of soldiers and sailors and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and more are all benefitting from what’s going down in D.C. — but the real driver of all of this now is the amount of promotion, cross-promotion and sponsorship dollars flowing in one direction or another. There will be junkets, boondoggles and expense account dinners by the boatload. Baseball can’t plan in advance where the World Series will be but it knows years out where the All-Star Game is, so this, for lack of anything better, is its Super Bowl week.

Which, good for baseball, but why should we care exactly?

Why should we care about a game that will be pretty unentertaining if recent history is any guide? Why should we care about a game whose biggest stars will play an inning or two and likely not be around to play a hand in its victory? I’m not so cynical that I can’t be convinced that there is some reason to care, but at present there is no case being made. Perhaps a sidelining of the commercial interests ruling it all now and making it more explicitly a charitable endeavor would help. Getting the All-Star Game back to its roots. Baseball usually loves to mine its past. Maybe it can mine its past when it comes to this too.

Sorry if that comes off as overly grumpy, but I did warn you about that 12-13 paragraphs ago.