boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

An exhibition of foolishness

Start with this: The major league baseball All-Star Game will never be what it once was. It never can mean what it once meant. That time has come and gone.

But it sure can be a lot better than it is.

The All-Star Game was once one of the top five sporting events in America, no question. Even played in broad daylight and available to the general population only either on radio or in print the following day, the game held America in its grip. The issue was National League vs. American League, and people cared. Do fans today have any idea that there was no such thing as interleague trading until the early '60s? It was a mighty big deal to cross from one league to the other. You only did it when you were young or old.

When Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward conceived of a baseball All-Star Game to be played in conjunction with the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, there was baseball and there was Everything Else as far as team sports were concerned in this country. The idea of assembling all of baseball's stars on one field had enormous appeal. That Babe Ruth hit the first home run was only fitting.

The game acquired an immediate cachet in its second year when Carl Hubbell fanned Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin -- five Hall of Famers-to-be -- in succession. By 1941, when Ted Williams hit a two-out, three-run game-winning homer in Detroit off Cubs righthander Claude Passeau, the game had taken hold as a major event on the American sports calendar.

It remained so right into the '70s. In that pre-cable, pre-lotsastuff era, ratings remained high. Who didn't see Pete Rose run over Ray Fosse to decide the 1970 game? And when Reggie Jackson hit that majestic homer off the light tower a year later (again in Detroit), you'd swear the blast off Dock Ellis had been witnessed by every living American.

But we don't live in that world any longer. For many reasons, fewer people build that second Tuesday in July around the All-Star Game. So be it. They shouldn't. The game has been ruined.

The game took on a new, lesser light in the '80s, when suddenly it turned into grammar school and everyone needed a ribbon to say you had been in attendance. For the first four decades of its existence, starting pitchers routinely worked three innings. Starting position players might play the full game. It was understood that being selected didn't necessarily mean you were going to play. Everyone seemed fine with that. After all, the idea was to beat the $*@*!# out of those blankety-blanks from that other (inferior) league.

There was once great intrigue and mystery attached to the "other" league. Now in this era of ESPN, TBS, and major league TV packages, anyone with the means to do so can see all the baseball he or she wants. And then there is interleague play. It's no big deal to see the stars of the other league when they were in your town two weeks earlier, or on TV.

As for the game itself, managers did what they had to do to win. In 1967, Catfish Hunter worked the final five innings of a 15-inning, 2-1 National League victory. There were other pitchers available, since manager Hank Bauer only used five. Thirty-five years later, the game ended in a tie when skippers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly ran out of pitchers. How did we arrive at such a ludicrous juncture?

It's no secret, actually. We arrived there because back in the '80s, managers began using all of their pitchers. Now the most anyone goes is two innings, and then it's one inning, one inning, one inning, one inning, and so on. You keep doing that, and that's how you run out of pitchers in an 11-inning game. In my mind, you deserve what you get.

As far as position players are concerned, they're now very fortunate to get three at-bats. Everybody's got to play, you know. I keep thinking about the night in 1987 when my wife and I were sitting in White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's box listening to him chat with George Steinbrenner. The Boss didn't know that I was a moonlighting writer from Boston, and Reinsdorf, who did know, hadn't told him. So on and on The Boss went about how outraged he was that Dave Winfield had played the entire All-Star Game, all 12 innings of it, earlier that week. No one has to worry about someone playing 12 innings in this day and age.

It's hard to believe Ted Williams went 4 for 4 with four runs scored and five ribbies in the 12-0 AL victory in 1946. Or even that Yaz went 4 for 6 in 1970. Nobody ever will have that opportunity again.

Now we have this massive overreaction to the 2002 tie-game fiasco, with the league whose team wins being awarded home-field advantage in the World Series. This is beyond dumb, on many levels.

It actually might have made sense 40, 50, or 60 years ago, when managers played serious games. But where is the rationale when you're not remotely playing a proper game, when you're making subs just to make subs to keep everyone happy? How does that make any sense?

If commissioner Bud Selig really wanted this game to have meaning, he would do the following:

1. Eliminate the requirement that every team be represented. The NBA realized the folly of this 30 years ago.

2. Reduce the rosters from 32 to 26, one more than the norm. This would allow for an extra pitcher.

3. Instruct managers to substitute as they see fit, paying no attention to how many players get to play.

4. Make it clear all pitchers should be ready to work at least two innings apiece.

5. Institute the DH. If there is one time a DH is not only advisable, but necessary, it is the All-Star Game.

6. I am deadly serious about this one. Identify a pitcher on each team who shall be known as the Designated Finisher. He would understand that under no circumstances would he be used in the first nine innings, but that if he were to be used in the 10th or beyond, he would finish the game, no matter how long it goes. He would be baseball's answer to the designated driver. I see no other way to ensure that we have no more tie All-Star Games because "we ran out of pitchers."

Do all this, and we might have ourselves an All-Star Game worth caring about.

This will fix the game, but it will not force America to care as much about the 2008 game as the American sports fan did in 1938, '58, or '78. That's not going to happen.

I can live with that. But I have a hard time living with the foolish All-Star Game baseball has now.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES