The Fall of the Midsummer Classic

By Derek Rosenfeld

As I write this, it’s the week after yet another Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game (ASG), and the questions of its dwindling importance and profile continues. 

Now, with my recent, justified criticisms of the National Hockey League and the MLB Hall of Fame, some may start to label me as some sort of a sports contrarian. However, if there’s a cause, then there’s certainly an effect, and many times in the world of sports, which has become yet another money cipher (for better and for worse), the effects on the principles of a system are almost always negative.

There was a time, up until about 20 years ago, when the ASG was an event, an exciting night filled with anticipation, interest, and flavor. It was the first of two times during a season (the other being the World Series) where the best of the two leagues were brought together on the same field and fans got a chance to witness the stars that they never saw in their home park face off. Now, it is an “exhibition” in the truest sense of the word. It may have always been that, but now the term is being bandied about and stressed publicly like never before.

Listen to past legends such as Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, and Willie Mays, and you will hear how differently the ASG was viewed and approached back before future ASG selections saw opting out of the game as the better alternative to actually playing in it. Old timers WANTED to play in the game in hopes of showing the opposition which was the superior league. It was a game of pride for them, not a pageant. This all sounds as if it were better, and perhaps it was.

However, one must also remember that in the days before Kirby Puckett signed baseball’s first $3 million-a-year contract in 1991, the ASG and World Series were, to the players, as much about the games’ winner’s share as it was about actual bragging rights. It’s very easy for a lot of players to hide behind the veneer of “my time was better” when the past is so easily forgotten. To paraphrase former New York Yankee Clete Boyer, who once warned a rookie at the beginning of a season in the early 1960s, “You’d better not screw up. My wife likes wearing mink coats.” It was the supplemental incomes of championships and ASG victories that fueled a lot of their motivation.          

Whereas in the past, players clamored to play in the game for the chance at this extra income, there exists in today’s climate no real incentive for perennial all stars to make the trip to the game other than obligation; the three-day vacation most players view as the all-star break seems more inviting than playing in a high-profile exhibition.

This photo, taken at the 1937 MLB All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., shows future Hall-of-Famers (from left to right) Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg.

For many ASGs, there is the usual annual debate concerning the voting process, where the game’s starting players are voted in by the fans, and the aftermath regarding who was left off the rosters and who was included usually adds to the discussion. However, the 2011 ASG drew even more criticism for those who didn’t play in it than for those who did. Although there is always a list of players who opt out of the game because of injury or ineligibility, this particular year saw some very dubious defections from the game, most notably from New York Yankee and future Hall-of-Famer Derek Jeter, who cited exhaustion (a reason from which he subsequently backtracked) from his successful quest for 3,000 hits days prior to the game. A total of 18 roster changes were made before the game,1 a staggering number which seems to increase with each passing year. One must also consider that, with each all-star drop-out, another, perhaps less deserving and less popular player is added in his place, watering down a game known for putting the best in the world on display.
 
Another factor in the lessening interest in the ASG is interleague play. Commissioner Bud Selig’s long-gestating plan to bring both leagues together for several series a season came to fruition on June 12, 1997. Since then, the sight of seeing uniforms from different leagues on the same field has become more common and, thus, less remarkable. It was one thing entirely to get excited to see Dwight Gooden face Don Mattingly once a year, but who gets excited to watch Tim Lincecum square off against Evan Longoria when it just happened two weeks earlier?                 

In his desperation to make the ASG relevant after the 2002 game’s embarrassing extra-inning tie, Selig decided to create a new rule in 2003 which gave home field advantage in the World Series to the team from the winning league. This was and still is a very weak, unnecessary idea. It is correct to call the game an exhibition, but to force meaning onto it with such transparent intentions is disingenuous at worst and unnecessary at best.    

Because athletes from all professional sports deserve to get paid as much as they can get, there are going to be some casualties to many of the “purities” that had existed long before this era of mega salaries and mass media exposure. It’s very easy to pine for the “good old days” when your only contact with them is through heresy and old videos. But we live in a society with a much greater emphasis on the bottom line; as a result, little bits of exciting childhood past have been swapped for a more utilitarian feel.           

REFERENCES

1. http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/all_star/y2011/roster_league.jsp.

Image found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the Library of Congress' Harris & Ewing collection.

 

 

 

 

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He has been the assistant baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, since 2005. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the tri-state area. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.  

  

  

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