Midsummer Classic remains just that

July 15, 2013 

The All-Star Game ranks among my favorite baseball traditions, along with Sunday doubleheaders, Opening Day, and organists playing songs that somehow sound better on an organ heard in the gathering twilight than when performed by a vocalist.

Except Sunday doubleheaders and organ music have all but vanished from ballparks, and Opening Day is, uh, when and where? (For the 2012 Seattle Mariners, there were three of them: one in Japan, another in Oakland and the home opener at Safeco Field.)

Nothing is forever, but the All-Star Game, at 80 years old, has proven to be remarkably durable. Even during the lost season of 1994, when a labor stalemate forced the cancellation of the playoffs and World Series, the All-Star Game was played in Pittsburgh.

Tony Gwynn, who led off the bottom of the 10th inning with a base hit, scored the winning run by sliding under the mitt of catcher Pudge Rodriguez.

National League 8, American League 7. Gwynn’s temporary teammates stormed out of the dugout and mobbed him.

It has become fashionable to bemoan how the interleague schedule, implemented in 1997, has diluted the essential appeal of the All-Star Game.

“The game isn’t a special occasion anymore,” I keep hearing. “Watching the AL play the NL was a big deal, but now we’re able to see games like that every night.”

Well, yes and no. While interleague games no longer qualify as must-see events, how many times a season can fans watch a succession of Cy Young Award winners face a lineup stocked with recent batting champions and home run kings?

That would be once. It used to be twice. From 1959 to 1962, two All-Star Games were played, a few weeks apart, in different cities. The idea was based on the flawed premise that more equates to better.

The experiment was typical for the All-Star Game. It has undergone — and will continue to undergo — a variety of tweaks, most notably involving roster construction. Once upon a time, the managers chose the teams.

In 1947, the public was invited to participate, but when readers of the Cincinnati Enquirer stuffed enough ballot boxes to put seven 1957 Redlegs starters in the NL starting lineup, the selection task returned to the leagues until 1970.

Although fans still choose the starters, players now have input in determining the reserves.

The process is a bit complicated and very noisy — thinking here of sensational Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig, subject of still another debate between old-school purists and new-wave pragmatists — but when all is said and done, the most accomplished baseball players on the planet convene, once a season, to compete in a contest like no other.

There is something wrong with this?

The All-Star Game’s luster isn’t waning. To the contrary, the event has expanded, from a one-day exhibition into baseball’s version of a political convention.

All-Star FanFest, for instance, was born as a diversion to occupy tourists. Tickets were plentiful and cheap.

A ticket to the All-Star FanFest in New York City on Monday will cost you $35.

Some of this, of course, has to do with New York, where a light room-service breakfast in a downtown hotel requires a payday-advance loan.

But $35 FanFest tickets also point to a public that adores baseball in general, and the Midsummer Classic in particular.

Consider the evolution of the festivities since the All-Star Game came to the Kingdome in 1979.

Monday afternoon batting practice was open to everybody. No tickets, no lines — just show up and absorb the atmosphere.

“Maybe 15,000 were in the building,” Randy Adamack, the Mariners’ senior vice president of communications, recalled the other day. “The names of each guy in the cage were put on the scoreboard, and we had a P.A. announcer. But that was the extent of it: just some Monday afternoon batting practice before the All-Star Game.”

Adamack’s memories of that day compelled him to check out the names on the All-Star rosters: 14 Hall of Famers, including such icons as Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson and Joe Morgan. (Another Hall of Fame-caliber player, Pete Rose, also was on hand that day in the Kingdome.)

Imagine all of that baseball heritage under one roof, some of the greatest players who ever lived — not meeting for an old-timers’ reunion, mind you, but in their prime — available for fans to watch at no cost.

By the time the All-Star Game returned to Seattle in 2001, Monday afternoon batting practice preceded a spectacle marketed as “All-Star Workout Day.” It concluded with the Home Run Derby, an exercise in drool-spooling tedium that isn’t for everybody.

Personally? I’d rather sit through a PowerPoint presentation on the discrepancy of home insurance rates between South Dakota and North Dakota than endure the third round of the Home Run Derby, where hitters are served gift-wrapped lobs.

But I also understand that casual fans dig the long ball. A dumb contest finding a packed stadium marveling over moon shots destined for the upper deck is not a problem.

Nor is the carrot about the winning team securing home-field advantage for its league representative in the World Series.

Before commissioner Bud Selig launched his “This Time It Counts” campaign to give the All-Star Game an edgy relevance, home-field advantage in the World Series alternated this way: The NL champion got it one year, the AL champion got it the next.

The format was absurdly arbitrary — it enabled the 1987 Twins, 29-52 on the road during the regular season, to be crowned as champions — but nobody cared about the World Series home-field advantage angle until it was tied into the All-Star Game.

It’s supposed to be a celebration, a time for players to have fun and revel in the moment. How dare Selig violate the mood with a concept as substantial as gravity?

Relax. The Midsummer Classic remains a celebration. There’s a perk on the line, sure, but Selig’s push to “make the game count” hasn’t compromised the spirit of the night, full of moments to be treasured.

I especially enjoy the introductions. It’s a simple ritual — players smile, or wave to the crowd, or doff their cap — but on Tuesday, I’ll be as gripped watching the All-Stars form a single-file line along the infield basepaths as I was 50 years ago.

It never gets old.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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