This is a very important week for Major League Baseball. The Twins, in conjunction with Commissioner Bud Selig, are trying to prove that not every All-Star Game held in a new ballpark in the Upper Midwest ends in a tie.
But what if it did? What if the once-wondrous, increasingly uneven history of MLB All-Star Games became further befouled by the dreaded deadlock?
We all complain about All-Star games, even baseball’s — which remains easily the best of an increasingly irrelevant bunch — because they’re so easy to complain about.
And the complaints hold enough water to rain out the rest of the Twins’ season.
The players don’t care as much as they once did? True, although this generation seems to care more than the previous generation.
The winner of a midseason exhibition game featuring some players who have no chance of competing in the postseason determines which league receives home-field advantage in the World Series? True. But that change has added urgency to the event.
The rosters are too big and include obligatory representatives from even the worst teams, meaning that even players like Ricky Bones and (sorry to mention this, Coom) Ron Coomer wind up on the field during what should be a relentless celebration of greatness? True. But changing this rule would eliminate any reason for a struggling baseball market to care about the All-Star Game.
The voting is anything but democratic, as fans can find ways to vote an infinite number of times? True … and true.
“Since when, in America, could you vote as many times as you want in an election?” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “I mean, except in a couple of states I won’t mention.”
The managers feel obligated to use as many players as possible, meaning there is the possibility of running out of pitchers and being forced, in the commissioner’s hometown, during the commissioner’s showcasing of his beloved Miller Park, to end a game in a tie.
More than an exhibition game
Therein lies the conundrum of baseball’s All-Star Game: If it’s an exhibition, no one should care much about the score or result. If it’s supposed to be meaningful, it should be treated as such, and never end in a tie. It should be contested like a real game.
Now that the game is in our town, at our beautiful new ballpark, during one of our beautiful summers, perhaps the best response to all of the complaints about it is as apt as it is sophomoric:
So what if somebody you’ve never heard of from the Padres makes the final out. So what if the winner of the World Series can credit home-field advantage gained by players who won’t appear in the playoffs.
And so what if it ends in a tie.
When you’re the host city, baseball’s All-Star Game does its job. It brings the best players in the game to your ballpark, in an event that has created more drama and poignancy.
Quick, name five memorable moments from any other sport’s All-Star games. Can’t do it? OK, now take five months. We’ll wait.
Baseball’s All-Star Game has given us Ted Williams’ moment at Fenway Park, which was followed by Pedro Martinez dominating the National League … and Williams homering off the eephus pitch at Fenway Park in his first All-Star Game after serving as a fighter pilot in World War II … and Cal Ripken starting at shortstop and homering in his final All-Star Game … and Torii Hunter robbing Barry Bonds … and Stan Musial’s walk-off homer ... and Carl Hubbell striking out five Hall of Famers in succession … and, sadly and epically, Pete Rose damaging Ray Fosse at home plate in Cincinnati.
The difference with baseball
Baseball has two grand advantages over the All-Star games contested in the NFL, NBA and NHL.
In baseball, the defense tries. And in baseball, the venues are unique.
Every pitcher and fielder in baseball’s All-Star Game wants to succeed. In the other sports, there is a tacit agreement between competitors that avoiding injury and enabling offense is the best way to put on a show.
“Every time you put on this uniform and get around the other guys in the clubhouse you want to perform and do well, you want to show why you belong, and I don’t think that’s been lost over the years,” said Joe Mauer, the Twins’ official All-Star ambassador. “That’s just my experience. Guys want to come out and win and show why they’re there. It’s a great event, and I’m looking forward to it.”
In baseball, the ballparks frame the action and change the dimensions. When Camden Yards played host to the All-Star Game, those in the Home Run Derby wanted to become the first to pepper the warehouse beyond right field, or at least hit a ball into Boog’s BBQ.
When Reggie Jackson hit a homer that reached the roof of Tiger Stadium, hit a transformer and knocked out the lights, the grungy old ballpark became part of the story. That couldn’t happen in an All-Star Game at Staples Center, or at a football stadium in Honolulu.
The very structure of baseball creates moments that would seem out of place in other sports. When John Kruk took a look at Randy Johnson’s fastball flying over his head from what seemed to be first base in 1993, he bailed out, patted his chest, then flailed at three pitches on the outside corner.
He laughed, and bowed. Johnson laughed. All of the players in both dugouts laughed.
If an NFL player whiffed on a tackle of Adrian Peterson, nobody would laugh.
Baseball’s pace allows moments to marinate. Baseball is a seven-course meal in a fast-food world, and Target Field will host the whole feast.
“It’s a little bit different than when I played,” Twins legend Tony Oliva said. “I was so lucky. I still dream about my first All-Star Game. I was a rookie being next to all those big shooters, like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and Harmon Killebrew. I was a rookie, a little rookie, and to be with that team, I was so nervous that I didn’t know what to do.
“But I had a great time. The All-Star Game is a five-day festival, and the people here are going to experience something that they never experienced before.”
Baseball’s All-Star Game offers the promise of poetry.
In 2001, Ripken was meandering through a mediocre season. He had already announced that he would retire. He received enough votes to become the starting third baseman for the American League at Seattle’s Safeco Field.
When the game began, Ripken sprinted to third, and Alex Rodriguez to short. Then Rodriguez pointed to the dugout, where American League manager Joe Torre was motioning for Ripken to move to his left. Ripken took a few tentative steps, and then Torre made it clear that Ripken should take shortstop, the position where he spent most of his career.
When Ripken came to bat, the music from “The Natural” played, and he received a standing ovation. Then he lined a home run to left, becoming the oldest player to homer in an All-Star Game. He would become the game’s Most Valuable Player, making him the first American League player to win that award twice.
Yes, the All-Star Game is so magical it can momentarily transform A-Rod into a likeable guy.
“One of the great all-time moments,” Torre said.
Sometimes, the poetry occurs before the game even begins.
In 1999, the game visited Fenway Park, and a golf cart carried an 80-year-old man nicknamed “The Kid” toward the infield.
Current legends of the game gathered around Ted Williams, patting his shoulder, posing for pictures, treasuring a moment in his presence as ovations washed over the field relentlessly as waves.
Everyone knew Williams was near the end. He would pass three years later. He had left Boston with hard feelings and regrets. He had refused to even tip his cap after hitting his last home run at Fenway.
All was forgiven on a beautiful night at Fenway.
The late Tony Gwynn, like Williams a brilliant hitter hailing from San Diego, helped point Williams, his eyes failing, toward home plate. Somehow, Williams threw a strike, then hugged Carlton Fisk. The players clung to the moment, peppering Williams with questions.
“I remember walking back toward the dugout after that thinking, ‘We’ll never have a moment like this in baseball again,’ ” Gwynn told baseball writer Scott Miller. “When was the last time you had a PA announcer have to ask players to clear the field?”
Tuesday, Derek Jeter will play in his last All-Star Game, in our limestone palace. Be assured that for all of its flaws, this game knows how to write an ending.