With so much at stake, All-Star Game needs to get real
Hard as this may be for the young’uns to grasp, the Major League All-Star Game was for decades one of the five biggest events on America’s national sporting calendar.
The World Series was numero uno, no question. The All-Star Game was quite possibly No. 2, and if it wasn’t, it was right there with the Rose Bowl, Kentucky Derby, and any heavyweight title bout, with the Indy 500 on the rail.
The NFL? Though the phrase did not yet exist, it was a nice niche sport, nothing more.
Those days are gone, baby, gone.
The sporting America in which Carl Hubbell fanned the five future Hall of Famers in succession (1934), Ted Williams hit the two-out, game-winning homer in Detroit (1941), Stan Musial hit the game-winning, 12th-inning home run in Milwaukee (1955), and Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse with the winning run (1970) no longer exists. Football is now king and baseball is presented to us in an entirely different package. The baseball All-Star Game cannot be what it once was, but it can be better than it is.
Sadly, Bud Selig and his marketing minions don’t get it.
Bud is haunted by the tie game in his own hometown seven years ago. It was second only to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series as the worst event of his tenure as baseball commissioner, and he is determined it will not happen again. He thinks the solution is to expand the rosters for Tuesday night’s game into the absurdly bloated 33 players apiece, 13 of whom will be pitchers. As is almost invariably the case in these matters, more is less.
In order to restore so-called “meaning’’ into the game, Bud declared that, beginning with the 2003 game, the teams would be playing for home-field advantage in the World Series. That hasn’t prevented the American League from winning the first six games played under this policy, nor has it prevented the National League from winning the World Series despite lack of said home-field advantage in 2006 and 2008.
But neither of those are the point. The truth is that Bud wants it both ways. He wants the game to be played for a proper prize, and yet he has allowed the game to evolve into something far less than a real baseball contest.
You want to make the All-Star Game better and far more interesting? All you have to do is reduce the rosters to a proper 25 and instruct the managers to play it as they would a real regular-season or postseason game. That would get my attention, and yours, too.
Does this mean pitchers should go nine, eight, seven, or six innings? No, let’s not be ridiculous. But it means they could go three, as they did from the first game in 1933 right through 1994, when Greg Maddux became the last pitcher to go more than two innings. It means we do away with this idiotic parade of one-inning (or less) pitching stints, which is how we wound up with both Joe Torre and Bob Brenly running out of pitchers after just 11 innings of play seven years ago.
Of course, we now live in a society where everyone gets a certificate of attendance and all competitors get yellow ribbons. Can’t leave anyone out or risk any hurt feelings.
It has become a true “exhibition,’’ but in the beginning it was pretty serious business. The game was instituted in 1933, a mere 32 years after the formation of the American League, and there remained a spirited rivalry between the leagues. American League manager Joe McCarthy replaced none of his eight position player starters, his only sub being Earl Averill, who pinch hit for Alvin Crowder, one of only three AL pitchers who saw action. Two years later, AL skipper Mickey Cochrane used just two pitchers in his team’s 4-1 conquest of the hated NL. Lefty Gomez went six and Mel Harder went three. And two years after that, McCarthy again beat the NL with three pitchers and no subs.
That’s right, no pinch hitters, no “defensive replacements,’’ no nothing. Hey, he wanted to win.
For many years thereafter, if you weren’t starting, there was no guarantee you’d be playing. In that 1939 game, 23 players sat and watched. As recently as 1986, 12 players failed to see action. That’s the way it was.
One year later, my wife and I, guests of the White Sox, sat a row in front of an agitated George Steinbrenner, who, unaware he was in the company of a writer, railed bitterly at great length to Jerry Reinsdorf about the fact that AL manager John McNamara had played Dave Winfield all 13 innings in the All-Star Game. That, too, is the way it was.
Now they all have to play. Only one National Leaguer has had four at-bats during a nine-inning All-Star Game in the last nine years. That was Carlos Beltran, who was given four ABs by Tony La Russa in 2007, and only because, I am sure, the Cardinals skipper was not given one other outfielder capable of playing a major league center field.
And pitchers! Please. God forbid a pitcher go more than an inning, two max. Running out of pitchers after 11 innings was absurd. I’d pay cash money to hear what Joe McCarthy would have to say about that.
If this thing is going to count for something - not that it should - then play it right. Tell the managers they’re playing to win, not to make players or their agents feel good.
But it would still never fully regain its luster. Aside from the DH business, the leagues have blended. Interleague play means the mystique of that mysterious “other’’ league is gone. Players go back and forth all the time. Do younger fans even realize that there was no such thing as interleague trading until 1959, and then it was initially allowed only for one 3 1/2-week period? The only way for a player to change leagues in the first six decades of the 20th century was by a waiver deal or outright release. When the AL and NL got together on that Tuesday in July, it meant something, simply because there was real league pride.
Bud Selig can’t bring those days back. But he and his baseball wise guys could put real juice back into the All-Star Game by shrinking it back to the creme de la creme stars and allowing them to determine the outcome.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.