Friday, July 18, 2014

Baseball needs to take a cue from the NBA and make the All-Star Game about fun

Baseball took one more step toward irrelevance last week with the staging of its 83rd annual All-Star Game at Minneapolis’s Target Field. The long, slow death of this once-great July tradition has been painful to watch over the last 12 years.
It started in 2002, when, with the National and American League teams tied at seven runs apiece through 11 arduous innings, both teams ran out of players to use. The prevailing thought at the time was that it’s a meaningless game, but dammit, we’re going to try to use every single player so that everyone who showed up will be able to one day tell their kids or your kids or someone else’s kids that they played in the great Midsummer Classic.
After both managers and the umpiring crew conferred with Commissioner Bud Selig, who was conveniently seated in the front row behind home plate of the Milwaukee ballpark where the team his family still owned played its home games, Selig declared the game a tie.
Selig had been the commissioner since 1998, though he’d spent the six years prior as acting commissioner after leading a the owners in a coup to remove Fay Vincent from the role, presumably for his crimes of trying to maintain revenue equality between the players and owners, his aggressive handling of George Steinbrenner’s erratic and maniacal behavior and his desire to see the designated hitter removed from the game entirely.
To all outward appearances, Selig and the owners ousted Vincent because he less concerned about acting in their best interests than he was in acting toward the best interests of the game—a far cry from when the owners, hats in hands, approached former federal judge and noted racist old loon Kenesaw Mountain Landis about becoming baseball’s first commissioner following the fixing of the 1919 World Series and granted him absolute power over the game.
So there, in his home ballpark with the game tied after 11 innings, committed one of the game’s greatest sins and allowed it to end in a tie.
Baseball games don’t end in ties. In a way, that’s part of the sport’s poetic beauty. You’re never fighting against a clock, you’re never running out of time. There are no penalty shots, no points system dictating standings and no letting up. You can play into the next day, postpone the game so that everyone can get a few hours of sleep, then pick it back up in the exact scenario where it was left off and compete until you’re blue in the face, then compete some more. Baseball is played until one team wins and another loses.
Selig’s mistake was assigning value to a game that needed no additional value. As the commissioner, endowed by the owners with absolute power, he could have allowed players who’d been removed from the game to re-enter it. Such provisions exist even in the Little League World Series—anything in the name of finishing with a winner and a loser. By stopping the game and sending an enraged crowd home deprived of an extra-inning thrill ride which could have easily been one of the most memorable and fun games in the sport’s history.
Instead, the commish took the cowardly way out. Operating under the absurd notion that fans wanted the All-Star Game to be a meaningful affair rather than a fun exhibition—a mindset which was at the least revisionist and at the most stupidly antiquated—Selig declared that the following year, the league which won the game would receive home-field advantage in the World Series.
Prior to 2003, the leagues had alternated World Series home-field advantage each season, which, while not as sensible as granting the honor to the team with the better record, still makes a hell of a lot more sense than assigning it based on the outcome of an exhibition game played in July.
No other sport functions this way. The NBA, which unquestionably has the best All-Star weekend of all the major sports, understands that the game isn’t about bragging rights, even if it used to be—it’s about everyone involved having fun, from the players on the bench to the fans up in the nosebleeds, all the way to everyone watching on TV.
TNT’s David Aldridge, who’s easily one of the sharpest, funniest and best reporters ever to cover the NBA, once brilliantly dubbed NBA All-Star Weekend, “Black Thanksgiving.” As someone who barely follows the NBA, the skills competition and All-Star Game are still appointment viewing for me.
Here are a few notes I’ve taken while watching NBA All-Star Games:
·         Dwight Howard just referred to himself as “Chocolate Shoulders.”
·         (Kevin Durant hits a 3) Steve Kerr: Kevin Durant is the most athletic guy in the league.
·         (Howard dunks) Kerr: Dwight Howard is the most athletic guy you’ll see in this league, along with LeBron James.
·         (Russell Westbrook dunks) Kerr: Westbrook is probably the most athletic guy in the league right now, guys.
·         Craig Sager and Justin Bieber have an in-game, courtside condescension-off: Sager: So are you in school or something? Bieber: It’s the weekend, Craig.
·         Sager: Kobe, I saw you whisper something to D-Wade before tip-off. What’d you say to him? Kobe: Oh, it was nothing. Nothing to do with the game. It was something else that was humorous.
Fast forward to last Tuesday.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, playing his 32th and final major league season at the age of 57, got a much-deserved standing ovation when he came to bat for the first time. In deference, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright stepped off the mound and allowed the crowd to give Jeter all the love they wanted before he stepped in to hit. It was a nice moment—not quite on par with Ted Williams’s appearance at the start of the 1999 All-Star Game when the famously prickly Red Sox great, who vowed never to tip his cap and acknowledge the crowd, did both after being surrounded and greeted by all of the players as he shakily made his way out of a golf cart to deliver the game’s ceremonial first pitch, but a nice moment nonetheless.
And then Wainwright did what any good guy pitching in a stupid exhibition game would do: he threw Jeter a few fat pitches, giving the old man an opportunity to collect what should have ostensibly been an honorary hit—a chance for the guy to stand on first or second base and take in another few seconds of near-universal love before walking away from the first half of his life having fulfilled not just every last one of his childhood dreams, but allowing the millions of kids who grew up watching him play to experience some semblance of those dreams vicariously through him.
Showing deference to an outgoing great like Jeter is the only one of baseball’s unwritten rules worth a damn. On August 30, 1942, outfielder Tommy Henrich played his last game before shipping off to spend three years in the coast guard during World War 2. It was an afternoon affair at Yankee Stadium and everyone wanted to see Henrich, whose popularity on the Yankees was second only to that of Joe DiMaggio, go out on a high note. After all, there was a very real possibility that he might not come back.
This wasn’t lost on Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Dizzy Trout, who later admitted that he threw Henrich fat, hittable pitches all game. Henrich finished 3-for-3 with a double and a pair of walks, and the Yankees beat the Tigers, 4-3, in a regular season game. The Yankees were pretty good that year, the Tigers were middling at best.
But that was a real game that counted for both teams, and could very well have had playoff implications later on in the season. It didn’t matter to Trout and the Tigers—they wanted to give Henrich something nice to take with him.
There are probably hundreds more instances just like this of guys grooving pitches and conceding hits out of deference and respect to worthy opponents. It’s not the childish eye-for-an-eye code that determines who gets balls pitched directly at their heads, and it’s not at all sinister in the way players used to commonly associate with known gamblers and throw games for money.
Maybe Adam Wainwright shouldn’t have admitted to a reporter that he threw Jeter a couple of easy ones, but I’m glad he did. Wainwright plays for a pretty good team—a team to which home-field advantage in the World Series could mean something come October. But in admitting that he went easy on Jeter in order for the Yankee captain to best enjoy the moment qualifies as a tacit endorsement of the notion that the All-Star Game having postseason implications is flatly absurd.
The fans feel that way and at least some of the players feel that way.
But Selig will be gone from the game soon. Here’s to hoping he takes his ill-conceived notions about what matter in baseball with him, and that the future of the Midsummer Classic isn’t about making it count, but making it fun.

John Kruk made known how terrified he was of Randy Johnson, and Johnson responded in kind.

Four years later, Johnson had a similar exchange with Larry Walker.
I don't think Chan Ho Park was grooving that pitch to Ripken. I think he was just being Chan Ho Park.

Man, that ball went a long way.

Barry Bonds was the most reviled man in baseball when this happened, but that didn't make this any less fun for anyone involved, even Bonds.

Nothing beats this.