PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 10: Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith hits the ball during the 2011 Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game at Chase Field on July 10, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. The All-Star break has become an exhibition and that's okay. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
I remember getting my All-Star ballot in 1988. This was back before the internet, when fans voted by ballot, dangling chads and all. After the 1987 season, there was little question in my six-year-old mind who deserved to make the National League squad in the 1988 season: the entire starting lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals. And so I voted:
Tony Peña, Catcher
Pedro Guerrero, First Base
Tommy Herr, Second Base
Ozzie Smith, Shortstop
Terry Pendleton, Third Base
Vince Coleman, Left Field
Willie McGee, Center Field
(I don't remember who I voted for as the third outfielder, but I know it was not Tom Brunasky, Hated Twin of '87 and early-season acquisition for the Jack the Ripper-less Cardinals of '88.)
I was overjoyed that Ozzie Smith was the starting shortstop for the National League and Vince Coleman was the starting left fielder and leadoff man. I was also pleased that Willie McGee had made the squad as a reserve and Todd Worrell would be available should a fireman be needed.
Coleman would single to lead off the fourth inning and then, in a fit of excitizing that would make Jose Reyes blush, stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error. It's wonderful to me that Whitey Herzog managed the game and saw fit to set loose Vincent Van Go on the All-Star basepaths in all his Whiteyball glory. Naturally, Mark Gubicza threw a wild pitch and Coleman scored the only run of the game for the National League. Twas the Whiteyballingest run ever scored in All-Star history.
Ozzie Smith had four assists in four innings played and went 0 for 2 in the eighth of his fifteen All-Star Game appearances. Herzog brought in Willie McGee as a pinch runner in the fourth, hoping to the continue Whiteyballing around the bases in Coleman's wake, but it was not to be and the American League won the contest 2-1. Of course, once Ozzie and Vince were pulled, my mom made me go to bed, so I can't really say how dramatic the game really got, but the outcome was not that important. What was, to me as a child, was seeing my favorite team's players play. And that is something that I think gets glossed over by the adult commentariat.
Every year around this time, baseball pundits opine on how to improve the All-Star Game. In so doing, they are adults writing for adults and I feel that they often lose track of the magic nature of the All-Star Game for the child fans watching at home. It is looking back at my enjoyment of the Mid-Summer Classic growing up that I tentatively wade into the All-Star Game waters.
Looking at the svelte lineups of the 1988 All-Star Game, it becomes quite clear just how much the rosters have ballooned. Adding to the problem is the number of players pulling out of the exhibition. As of this writing, my Twitter feed had alerted me that the 82nd All-Star had been named. 750 ballplayers populate 25-man rosters. So, over 10% have now been named "All-Stars." (Congrats, Miguel Montero!) Some want to do away with the every team gets a representative rule as a way of dealing with this situation, but, looking back at my childhood, I think that's a bad idea. I assume that there are kids who root for even the worst of teams whose parents let them stay up to see their favorite team's representative get his plate appearance, inning in the field, or time on the mound.
There is a certain Sandlot vibe to naming Home Run Derby team captains and having them choose team members that appeals to my sensibilities as a former Sandlotter from the era of the Ragball. (The Beast would have ripped our Ragballs to shreds.) But, I was the type of Sandlotter who stayed up until the wee hours of the morning during our Smore sleepovers, waiting for old black-and-white re-runs on Nick at Nite of the Home Run Derby T.V. show, so that we could see Mays vs. Mantle, Aaron vs. Greenberg and so many other head-to-head match-ups that seem like a sepia toned Ken Burns-filmed dream.
Those Nick at Nite match-ups were quickly replaced by the full-color displays of Junior Griffey, McGwire, Sosa, et al. in the derbies of the late 90s and early aughts, displays that filled even a guy in his teens with wonder. Sadly, since the close of the PED era, the Home Run Derby has lost its allure. Not even an upliftingly unjuiced Josh Hamilton could tap into the reservoir of magic from the Fenway derby in '99, a backdrop that made Pedro Martinez's brilliance the following night all the more staggering.
Stan Musial's game-winning, twelfth-inning home run from the 1955 game was a finalist for all-time greatest moment in All-Star Game history. Not voted in as a starter, Musial entered the '55 game in the fourth inning as a pinch hitter and played out the game. Fellow Cardinal, Red Schoendienst, started and played the entire game, going 2 for 6. Mickey Mantle started and played all twelve innings for the American Leaguers, as well, also going 2 for 6, but The Mick had a homer and three ribbies. In '02, no player had more than 4 ABs, and that person was Garrett Anderson. This is not to decry what the All-Star weekend has become. Rather, it is simply a recognition that the game is approached now more with the Little League mentality--every club gets a representative and every representative gets to play--than in the days of yore which are now irrevocably stained with nostalgia.
Sure, "This Time It Counts!" I was in Europe the last time the game did not count and all I remember is photographs of Commissioner Selig calling the game on account of no pitchers as fans chanted "Let Them Play!" in protest. And while giving World Series home-field advantage isn't really any less arbitrary or silly than just going every other year, as was the previous arrangement, it really misses the point. The All-Star Game long ago became a meaningless exhibition. And that is just how and why I'll enjoy it--for its novelty. Like the barnstorming tours of the Midwest from the early 20th century, the AL and NL clubs have barnstormed to Phoenix. We get to watch great pitchers face great hitters in nearly every plate appearance. And, to me, there isn't much more I could ask for.