The Midsummer Crapshoot

The MLB All-Star Game is sometimes a little dull. That doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed.
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Maybe "mostly star game" would be more accurate.

An All-Star Game theoretically acts as a showcase for a league’s brightest stars, a chance for fans to witness dream matchups and discover (or rediscover) what drew them to the sport in the first place. It’s in many ways of parody of what makes a sport watchable: all highlights, all the best players, all exaggeration.

That equation doesn’t always make for a compelling game, but it does produce something worth watching: the NBA All-Star Game usually provides one four-part dunk amidst the lack of defense; the NHL All-Star Game allows talented skaters to move free of the usual clutter; even the NFL’s loathsome Pro Bowl, despite its lack of competition, involves a few tricks plays or touchdown passes between hated rivals. There’s an element of fantasy to all of it, and it’s at least a little inviting.

The MLB All-Star Game, which takes place tonight in Kansas City, is the most like a real game, which makes it the most dependable of the lot. However, by virtue of the peculiarities of its sport, it also turns out to be rather dull, or at least devoid of the circus atmosphere that a cavalcade of stars promises. If the point of these games is to promote what’s exciting and unique about the best athletes in the world, then the Midsummer Classic is something closer to an advertisement for a nice way to spend a hot August night. It’s not without its high-energy joys—remember Torii Hunter robbing Barry Bonds of a home run during the infamous tie of 2002, or Pedro Martinez striking out five of the first six batters in 1999 —but it’s often fairly familiar, enough like a real baseball game that celebrating the moment as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity can seem a little forced.

Many pundits have cooked up their own strategies to fix the All-Star Game. Major League Baseball’s answer, of course, was to introduce competition by giving the winner homefield advantage in the World Series, a decision that many people have eviscerated for reasons that should be readily apparent to anyone who’s ever watched the Ron Coomers (1999) and Derrick Turnbows (2006) of the world face off in a key late-inning at-bat. Others would rather make the game meaningless and trump up the fun of the event, which makes sense until you realize that MLB’s idea of fun mostly involves live performances by Train. These are incomplete responses, half-measures that ignore what a baseball game offers.

The problem here—if you’re inclined to see the nature of a sport as a problem—isn’t that MLB is simply not paying attention to obvious solutions, but that baseball itself doesn’t typically lend itself to showcases. It unfolds deliberately, and the best players are those who exercise near-monastic patience in the pursuit of a hittable pitch. There are very few players, pitchers or hitters, who announce their greatness or unique abilities instantaneously. (I’ve made this argument before with regards to Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who sadly had to miss this week’s festivities with a fairly serious knee injury.) For the most part, appreciating the best baseball players in the world requires prolonged observation and careful study. A young superstar like Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen is worth as much attention as anyone on the Red Sox or Yankees, but fans watching him for the first time in the All-Star Game might not see anything especially impressive. The vagaries of pitch selection, batted-ball luck, and all the other contingencies of baseball provide too many variables. Apart from a grooved pitch to a retiring legend, there’s no way for baseball players to approximate giving LeBron James an open lane to the hoop without looking like incompetent idiots.

The game can still be fun to watch, of course, and I fully intend on tuning in tonight. But it’s worth noting that most people who like the All-Star Game don’t expect to be dazzled. Their expectations are muted: they just want a well-played baseball game with a bunch of very good players on the field at once. There is hope for highlights but not the assumption that the assembled talent wills memorable moments into existence. Again, it’s not so different from a normal everyday baseball game. And while that might not be Carl Hubbell striking out six future Hall of Famers in a row, it can be a nice way for friends and family to pass a few hours.

Above all else, this approach respects baseball for what it is rather than what we think an imaginary demographic might want. All the attempts to fix the All-Star Game, from MLB’s official changes to fan crowdsourcing, ultimately rest on the assumption that a nine-inning game somehow lacks the charge to excite fans. (One exception is the now-viral Eastern League Home Run Derby, which takes the core randomness of batted balls and turns it into an absurdist comedy.) Some games can be dull, surely, and that’s an unfortunate fact of the sport. But the best aspects of the sport rarely prove exciting in the ways we expect—look at last fall’s World Series, or Chuckie Carr’s entire career. Going into any one game expecting stars to be stars is a fool’s errand, the last refuge of someone no longer comfortable with just watching a baseball game and letting the fun unfold at whichever pace it chooses. Legislating fun rarely turns out well, and at worst the parties tasked with promoting that excitement end up sounding like old men describing their first experiences with low-rise jeans.

Baseball doesn’t market its individual players very well, and it sometimes seems as if any World Series outside of New York or Boston is doomed to broader cultural irrelevance until it gets to the sixth or seventh game. But that doesn’t mean that the sport is boring or suffers from a dearth of exciting talent—what it says is that the league needs to find ways to make its unique character and style attractive to a new group of fans. The All-Star Game might be a good way to do that, but treating any single baseball game as a launching pad to national prominence neglects the reality of the sport. As long as we pressure Bryce Harper and Mike Trout to make a splash in their first appearances on the national stage, we doom them to failure. We need new ways to communicate what already makes baseball great, not invent new ways to make it great. Leave the panaceas to the charlatans.

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The one thing I wish existed was some game where position players had to pitch. No rare, but not historic, thing in baseball brings me as much giddiness. Forcing them to pitch to the leagues best hitters? Instantly a far more interesting home run derby.