The very idea of an All-Star game is almost primal. As a little kid, whether you were playing Strat-O-Matic or video games or whiffle ball in the back yard, wasn't one of the first things you did imagine a game where all of the best players competed against each other? The modern interleague showdown dates back to 1933, but All-Star games were common even back in the 1800s. In fact, the first professional baseball game to ever charge admission in 1858 featured All-Stars from several Brooklyn teams vs. All-Stars from several Manhattan teams.
So how did the modern All-Star game become so lousy, and is there anything we can do to fix it?
First, there's the question of whether the game USED TO be more competitive. That's a tough one to answer. Old-Timers on the analyst circuit almost always insist that it was. In fact, Tim McCarver said during a broadcast last week that the game was played harder in his day because the players identified with their league as well as their team, and took pride in beating the other circuit. In the inaugural 1933 game, AL Manager Connie Mack used only three pitchers and two bench players, a pinch-hitter and a defensive sub for Babe Ruth, as part of a 9th inning double-switch.
So there's certainly evidence to suggest the game used to be played more like an actual baseball game. And even by 1970, Pete Rose famously bulldozed catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run for the National League. But wherever the game began, by 2001 it was such a hollow exhibition they even stopped the game itself to hand out some awards. The game reached its nadir the very next season, when it had to be called because managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly were putting so little effort into their duties they both ran out of pitchers.
Out of that debacle came the new system: The winning team would earn their league home field advantage in the World Series. I thought it a fantastic idea to actually add some spice back into the competition. And yet, almost immediately, cries went up defending the flaccid exhibition the game had become. And even now, more than 10 years later, many fans and Professional Baseball Talkers still insist that the All-Star game is, in fact, an exhibition. It is not.
If two teams who had locked up the wildcard spots were meeting on the last day of the regular season, with the winner earning home field advantage for the one-game playoff, would anyone call that an exhibition?
And yet so ingrained is this notion that the All-Star game should be executed with about as much gusto as an offseason card show at the fairgrounds, managers still - for the most part - focus on inane pursuits like getting everyone into the game rather than winning. And these are very often managers of competitive teams who might well benefit from that home field advantage. So while the "This Time it Matters" movement should have injected competitiveness back into the game, for the most part, it has not.
I hate to blame anything on something so ephemeral as "the culture of baseball," but there is a deeply held belief that the ONLY worthwhile professional baseball competition is the Major League regular season and playoffs. It's a notion that almost certainly began with the owners, who didn't want their star players doing the kind of barnstorming that was common in the early 20th century. But it is so pervasive now it extends to the All-Star game, even now that it is explicitly part of the Major League Baseball season.
It's the same attitude that's muted the response to the World Baseball Classic, and that's a shame. I went to a round of pool play in the last WBC and it was fantastic. Even in Phoenix's air-conditioned, shopping mall of a stadium, there was absolutely a playoff atmosphere during every single game. There was even a bench-clearing brawl that spilled into the stands, if you don' believe the competition was fierce.
The WBC is an attempt to create something like a World Cup for baseball, and a competitive environment more akin to soccer is something that baseball fans should embrace. A soccer fan gets to cheer on their team in multiple competitions at the same time - their league, various cup tournaments and maybe even something like the Champions League. The players - even the best players in the world - also compete for their national teams for essentially no money. Why? Again, this gets a little ephemeral, but it seems accurate to say it's because there is a perception in soccer that international competition is meaningful and playing on that stage is part of a great career.
Soccer clubs don't want their best players competing outside of the league and cup competitions either, and sometimes they even get their wish. But for the most part, what you don't see are FANS taking up the company line in the way that baseball fans are eager to dismiss things like the All-Star Game and WBC.
Hell, I wish there were still barnstorming teams. Are you telling me that if Mike Trout and a squad of his buddies came to your town to play a bunch of bearded, long-haired religious fanatics, you wouldn't watch that game?
Is there a risk of star players being injured in an All-Star game or the World Baseball Classic? Sure there is. But to quote Frank Drebin, "you take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan." For a sport that already plays 162 regular season games, and expects developing players to compete in winter ball on top of that, the added risk in one or even a few more games is pretty marginal.
So what can we do to move the glacier that is "the culture of baseball" when it comes to the All-Star game? Not a whole lot. In fact, now that we've seen what little effect home field advantage had, I have no doubt that if the losing team were to be fed to wolves, there would still be hardened old baseball men who insisted on not taking the game seriously because That's The Way It Ought To Be Played.
But we aren't hardened old baseball men, or Professional Baseball Talkers or certainly not owners. We are fans who should want to see the best competition we can. At the very least, I think we can refuse to look down our noses at the All-Star Game or the World Baseball Classic. More competitive baseball is a good thing.