DENVER — The All-Star Game is designed, above all, to be a showcase of the sport.
Oh, in the good old days, when there was no interleague play to intermingle the players, the results clearly meant more, exemplified by Pete Rose infamously bowling over Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse in 1970. Humiliated by the All-Star tie in 2002, MLB tried to manufacture some midsummer gravitas by awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league. But the concept never really took hold and was quietly dropped a few years ago, lamented by no one.
Now the All-Star Game, returning after a year’s COVID-19 absence, is back to doing what it does best — pomp and ceremony, honoring the connection between stars of the past and present, and, for those willing to absorb it, providing a fun interlude in the long slog of a season.
On Tuesday at Coors Field, only the hardest of hearts weren’t moved to tears by the magnificent pregame tribute to the late Henry Aaron, which included an appearance by his widow, Billye. I’ve always loved this part of the All-Star Game as much or more than the game itself —- the player introductions, the former stars of the home team returning to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (in this case, Larry Walker and Todd Helton) and all the other attendant hoopla. I won’t apologize for being moved by the thunderous ovation the Denver fans gave their departed favorite son, Nolan Arenado. The All-Star Game never fails to provide such moments.
I used to also love the fact that players wore the uniform tops and hats of their own team, a unique tradition that provided a splash of color to the proceedings while also giving a nod to all the disparate fans watching from home. For instance, in the olden days (1933 through 2019), Mariner fans would have gotten to see their home threads on display at least when Yusei Kikuchi was introduced, since he wasn’t playing. Before the game, Kikuchi confirmed that he approached AL manager Kevin Cash on Monday to ask to be removed from the active roster. Speaking through interpreter Kevin Ando, Kikuchi told me he wasn’t able to properly throw for two days in a row, and so his body “just wasn’t ready to pitch in a game today.”
This year, though, all the players wore the same hideous thing, something resembling a softball uniform with pajama bottoms for pants, a regrettable marketing decision that unnecessarily degraded a quaint and much-loved custom.
When it comes to a celebration of baseball, which is the other way to phrase the All-Star Game purpose, these are in many ways heady times. It’s been many years since the sport has had a figure as compelling as Shohei Ohtani, who is somehow performing at an elite level both as a pitcher and hitter. Every All-Star here in Denver who was asked about Ohtani expressed nothing but awe and wonderment, as we all should.
You can’t help but be riveted by Ohtani’s accomplishment, and the All-Star Game has allowed him to show it off to maximum theater. After a breathtaking power display Monday in the Home Run Derby (albeit not enough to advance past the first round), Ohtani started for the AL at both designated hitter and pitcher Tuesday, which is Ruthian stuff. Except I feel confident the Babe never threw back-to-back 100 mph pitches, as Ohtani did to close out his scoreless inning. Ohtani grounded out in his two at-bats. He’s not Superman after all, though he often plays him on TV.
Throw in a cavalcade of engaging young stars, especially the trio whom commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark, in separate Q and A’s Tuesday with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, each referred to as “The Juniors” —- Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and (the regrettably injured) Ronald Acuna Jr. —- and baseball is well-positioned for the future. At least in the most important area: Talent. Game MVP Guerrero flashed his prodigious skills with a 468-foot home run to left to become, at 22, the youngest player to homer in the All-Star Game since Johnny Bench in 1969.
Yet it also can’t be denied this is a highly troubled juncture for the grand old game. It seems like crises are afoot in all directions, with the ominous backdrop of a labor agreement that expires after the season. Manfred told the BBWAA that his goal is to avoid a work stoppage, and he has a track record of doing just that numerous times as the owners’ lead negotiator before he became commissioner. MLB has had labor peace since the strike of 1994, but the current rancor between the two sides is reminiscent of the more turbulent 1970s through ’94.
But the real crisis for baseball is an existential one: How can they coax more on-field action out of a game that has become far too bogged down in a maelstrom of strikeouts, home runs and walks, the proverbial “three true outcomes.” Manfred’s decision to enforce the prohibition of foreign substances on the ball, though clumsily executed, has already served the purpose of elevating offense. But more needs to be done, as a cursory glance at the ungodly whiff totals —- and dwindling batting averages —- attests.
The problem, as is always the case with baseball, is that few agree on how to do it. The divergence of opinion is actually a good thing, the byproduct of the passion the sport still engenders, as well as its historical heft. The result is that any proposed rule change or philosophical turn is practically an engraved invitation to a culture war.
Many will be pleased to hear that Manfred told the BBWAA Tuesday that the seven-inning doubleheaders and extra-inning zombie runner are likely to fade away once COVID does. I was even more pleased to hear from him — though I’m sure it will be fighting words to many — that the owners are united in the belief that it’s time to legislate against shifts.
“I think the reason for that is really simple, right?’’ Manfred said. “If you think about it, let’s just say you regulate the shift by requiring two infielders on each side of second base. What does that do? It makes the game look like what it looked like when I was 12 years old watching the All-Star Game. So it’s not a change. It’s kind of a restoration.”
Maybe it’s the nostalgia in me coming out, but I still expect a shot to the hole between first and second to be a base hit, not gobbled up by the third baseman stationed in shallow right field. Despite that, I consider myself a progressive when it comes to baseball, very open to changes, even radical ones, that will move things forward. I think the players are better than ever and the game is still wonderful; it just needs to be tweaked a little bit so the players are allowed to show off their skills again.
Which brings us back to the All-Star Game, a 5-2 American League victory where shifts were not quite as plentiful, strikeouts didn’t run quite so rampant, and the wondrous skills of the players were displayed in all their glory.
Well, most of their glory; let’s not get carried away. The game dragged at times. Bless its heart, it delivered an “only in baseball” moment in the eighth inning when the “other” Angels rep, Jared Walsh, made a game-saving, sliding catch of Kris Bryant’s line drive with the bases loaded. You might correctly remember that Walsh is a first baseman; it was his very first game in left field.
Oh, the winning pitcher for the AL? Why, Shohei Ohtani. A fitting touch, yet it was the grace notes that I’ll take home, as usual.
A showcase, indeed.