SEATTLE — The MLB All-Star Game has always been the best of them all.
Certainly, it is the only all-star game among the major sports teeming with iconic moments, from Carl Hubbell striking out legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in 1934, to Ted Williams’ homer off Rip Sewell’s “eephus” pitch in 1946, to Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in 1970, to Reggie Jackson blasting one off the light tower in Detroit in 1971.
And that’s just the start of it. I covered the first of my 22 All-Star Games (No. 23 is coming Tuesday in New York) in 1987 in Oakland, and I can rattle off a host of compelling moments that I witnessed:
Bo Jackson, at the height of his fame, crushing a home run off Rick Reuschel;
Sandy Alomar of the Indians hitting a late three-run homer to win the game in his home ballpark, Jacobs Field;
The high-jinks of John Kruk and Larry Walker as they faced fearsome lefty Randy Johnson;
Cal Ripken Jr. winning the MVP Award on a magical night in Seattle, featuring one of the best moments of Alex Rodriguez’s career when he yielded shortstop to the retiring Ripken. Not to mention the high comedy of Tommy Lasorda falling on his butt in the third-base coaching box.
Torii Hunter’s leaping catch to rob Barry Bonds, and Bonds saluting him with a hat tip.
Mike Young hitting a game-winning two-run triple in the ninth — off saves king Trevor Hoffman, no less — to lift the American League to a win.
Ichiro getting the first inside-the-park homer in All-Star history, and Pablo Sandoval getting the first bases-loaded triple five years later.
That doesn’t even count the introduction of the All-Century team, all living members of 500-homer club, Willie Mays in San Francisco and Stan Musial in St. Louis, and other thrilling moments apart from the game. I wasn’t at Fenway Park when Ted Williams was introduced, but I got goose bumps watching on TV.
Heck, even the infamous tie in Milwaukee in 2002, with Bud Selig throwing up his hands in dismay after both teams ran out of pitchers, was oddly fascinating and certainly unforgettable.
I dare you to come up with one memorable moment from the NFL Pro Bowl — and Peyton Manning calling teammate Mike Vanderjagt an “idiot kicker in 2003 doesn’t count.
Yet baseball’s All-Star Game has been in a steady decline in terms of interest, to the point that the ratings last year were at an all-time low. The National League’s 8-0 victory drew a 6.8 rating/12 share, meaning just 10.9 million viewers tuned in. At the height of its popularity in 1976, the All-Star Game peaked with a 27.1 rating/53 share, attracting 36.3 million viewers.
I understand that television viewing habits have undergone revolutionary changes in the ensuing 37 years. But something is wrong when the Pro Bowl, long viewed as a terminally lackluster event, still drew 12.2 million viewers last year — one million more than MLB’s Midsummer Classic. Right now, the NBA All-Star Game has more buzz than the baseball gathering, even though the Slam-Dunk Contest is just about as stale as the Home-Run Derby.
MLB is fighting two problems when it comes to spicing up its All-Star Game. One is that the game’s allure has been irretrievably lost by the advent of free agency and interleague play. When I was a kid, it was unique and thrilling to see the American League against the National League. The only other time the two leagues squared off was the World Series, so there was genuine intrigue to watching, say, Carl Yastrzemski face Sandy Koufax.
Now, not only is there an interleague game every night, but the market movement fueled by free agency has dulled what used to be fierce loyalty by players to their league. A current star knows that he might well be moving leagues as soon as he gets a better offer. Some of the tension and motivation has indisputably departed, despite Selig’s determined effort, post-tie, to make the result “count“ for home-field advantage.
The other issue in play is that baseball is in a transition period when it comes to its stars. A sensational young crop is on the way in (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Stephen Strasburg, et al), and a worthy cadre is either gone, on its way out or in steep decline (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols).
The sport is left with no larger-than-life superstar in his prime, like the NBA has with LeBron James and the NFL with Tom Brady. I believe such a kingpin is coming with Trout and Harper, but right now MLB is betwixt and between. That’s not to say there are not transcendent players, like Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez, but they’re simply not quite of the stature to draw fans to their television set.
That said, MLB needs to decide whether its All-Star Game is meant to be meaningful, or not. Right now, it is sending out mixed messages that only confuse fans. If home-field advantage is at stake, then why are the lineups selected essentially by ballot-box stuffing? Why does every team have to be represented, and why do the managers insist on playing everyone rather than deploying their rosters to win?
I’d like to see managers stop treating it like a Little League game where every kid has to get on the field. In the good old days, the best players used to stay in for nine innings. That might be extreme, but I’d like to see the starters all get at least three at-bats. And I never thought I’d say this, but let’s dump the rule about every team being represented. The only team that needs to be assured of a player is the host team. Ballclubs that gut their squad, like the Astros and Marlins, don’t need to be rewarded with an All-Star if one is not worthy.
Mostly, baseball needs to stop making self-destructive decisions, like not having Justin Upton in the Home Run Derby in Arizona or Billy Butler in Kansas City. And when there is an exciting young talent on the horizon, for the love of Fernando, it needs to find a way to get him in the All-Star Game.
Yes, I’m talking about Yasiel Puig. It is astonishing to me, absolutely mind-boggling, that the one player who is taking baseball by storm will not, as it appears now, be in New York. Never mind that Puig barely has 100 at-bats. Just like Strasburg in 2011, he should, if healthy, be represented for the simple reason that he excites people and makes them pay attention to baseball.
Isn’t that the point? Yet MLB virtually ensured that Puig wouldn’t win the Final Man balloting by putting another Dodger, Adrian Gonzalez, on the ballot to split the vote. Freddie Freeman of the Braves wound up winning, and while he’s an outstanding young player, he’s not someone you are compelled to watch the highlights of each night.
That guy, inexcusably, is going to be sitting at home, unless there’s a last-minute intervention by MLB. And I would welcome some gentle manipulation from headquarters to make sure that the waning All-Star Game gets a much-needed energy boost.