Feinstein: All-Star Game Doesn't Matter Anymore

Back in the day, players tried to win the All-Star Game; these days, they look for excuses not to go, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
July 19, 2018 - 9:36 am

USA Today Images


One of my very first baseball memories dates to the 1964 All-Star game. It was played at Shea Stadium and my dad, who stopped caring about baseball the day the Dodgers left Brooklyn, took me to the game.
The National League won, 7-4, on a Johnny Callison home run. In those days, the National League almost always won the All-Star game—it went 12-1-1 during a stretch beginning in 1960 and won eight in a row beginning in 1963. The starting outfield for the NL in those days was Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. No wonder they won almost all the time.
The biggest thrill for me that afternoon—yes, the All-Star game was played in the afternoon—was seeing Ron Hunt start for the National League at second base.
Hunt had finished second in the rookie-of-the-year voting behind Pete Rose in 1963, and was the Mets' first legitimate All-Star. Riding the number 7 train to Shea with my dad (the ballpark was sparkling and brand new back then) and seeing Hunt playing on the same team with Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Rose and Bob Gibson – among others – was one of the great thrills of my then-young life.
Back then, the All-Star game was must-watch if you were a baseball fan. The National League was very proud of its dominance. Mays often batted lead off in order to get more at-bats. The starters stayed in until deep in the game because both teams were trying very hard to WIN.
My last vivid All-Star memory came in 1971 when Reggie Jackson hit a pinch-hit home run that crashed into the light stanchion in right field in Tiger Stadium. That shot keyed a 6-4 American League win that broke the NL’s eight game winning streak. The next year, the NL won again – the Mets lefty Tug McGraw was the winning pitcher – and started another 10-game winning streak.
That meant the National League went 22-2-1 from 1960 through 1982 (there were two All-Star games in 1959, ’60-’61 and ’62) a cause for deep concern among baseball people. One of the reasons the American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973 was that the National League brand of ball was so much more exciting than the American League brand.
I covered the All-Star game for The Washington Post in San Francisco in 1984 and remember batting practice on Monday afternoon when one slugger after another took turns crushing balls into the stands. There was nothing formal about it, no hyped ‘Home Run Derby,’ just a bunch of great players putting on a show for thrilled fans—who paid nothing to get into the ballpark that day.
The next night, with a twilight start, the pitchers dominated in a 3-1 National League victory. My memory is that the game didn’t take very long. I looked it up: two hours and 29 minutes. This past Tuesday’s game in Washington took almost exactly one hour longer. Granted, there was a 10th inning, but the game ended just before midnight.
To most fans nowadays, that feels routine. After all, the average Major League Baseball game this season has taken three hours—and that’s a five-minute improvement from last season.
The American League’s 8-6 victory on Tuesday meant it has now won 18 of the last 22 All-Star games. Here’s the thing: nobody cares anymore—including the players. I’m not exactly certain when the game stopped mattering at all, but it’s been a while now.
Maybe it dates to 1979 when Garry Templeton was chosen for the National League team, but not as a starter, and refused to go to the game. “If I’m not startin’, I’m not departin,’” he famously said. These days it feels as if as many players look for an excuse not to go as want to go.
When the 2002 game ended in a tie after 12 innings because both teams ran out of pitchers, Commissioner Bud Selig, embarrassed that the tie had happened in Milwaukee – his home town – came up with the brilliant idea of deciding who would get home field for the World Series at the All-Star game.
FOX used the slogan, “now it matters”—or something like that—and for the next 14 seasons, where Game 7 of the World Series would be played was decided by an exhibition game.
Mercifully, Selig’s successor, Rob Manfred, put a stop to that in 2017.
Baseball’s All-Star game is still—by far—the best of the All-Star games if only because there’s little concern about anyone getting hurt playing baseball. In the NFL, NBA and NHL, defense basically doesn’t exist in their All-Star affairs because it makes no sense to play physically in a meaningless game. All those leagues have tried various methods to kindle interest in the game—including having players choose up sides.
At least baseball is still played like baseball, even though one’s box score looks like early March with all the pitching changes and personnel changes designed to get everyone into the game.
Certainly the game was a big deal here in Washington this past week. It’s understandable. The city went 33 years without a baseball team—the second-generation Senators leaving a huge void when they bolted for Texas in 1971.
Even though I grew up in New York, I felt it when I first went to work for The Washington Post in 1977. Back then, the Bullets had only recently arrived from Baltimore and the Capitals were a truly awful expansion team.
The sports pages of the Post were dominated by the NFL team—pretty much 12 months a year. I still remember going on vacation to Boston in September of 1978 in the midst of the great Yankees-Red Sox pennant race. I was a Mets fan but I became completely caught up in the day-to-day back and forth of the race. Reading the Boston Globe every morning, filled with baseball stories, was absolutely great. The Patriots were an after-thought.
I pretty much didn’t want to go home. When I did, I walked into Post sports editor George Solomon’s office to report back for duty. He asked how my vacation was.
“It was absolutely great,” I said. “Reading the Globe every morning was amazing. You know, you can’t really be a major league sports town without a baseball team.”
I’ll never forget the look on Solomon’s face. He was furious. “You know, you don’t have to work here,” he said. “Why don’t you see if you can get a job at the Globe.”
It wasn’t until 28 years later that Washington—in my mind, if not Solomon’s—became a major league town again when the Expos moved to D.C. and became the Nationals.
The team’s gotten very good the last seven seasons, but still hasn’t made it out of the first round in four trips to the playoffs. I’ve feuded with general manager Mike Rizzo (and much of the local media) over Stephen Strasburg sitting out the 2012 postseason and the now mercifully-departed Jayson Werth.
On Monday, when Bryce Harper—who I’ve always liked—won the Home Run Derby, people acted as if the Nats had finally made the World Series. I wrote a CBS Sports Minute making fun of all the hysteria and the fact that many in the D.C.media—frightened that Harper will leave this fall as a free agent—are already trying to say Harper leaving isn’t that big a deal.
It IS a big deal. Winning the Home Run Derby is not. Naturally, the local media talking heads pilloried me for daring to make fun of them. I suppose they’re entitled.
All that said, I didn’t watch a minute of the All-Star game. I couldn’t care less anymore. Give me the Cardinals and Cubs tonight and the season (finally) re-starting in earnest on Friday.
I looked up Ron Hunt before I began to write this morning. He’s 78 years old. Which is remarkable since I could swear he was my 24-year-old hero about 15 minutes ago.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on the New York times bestseller list. His latest young adult mystery, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Library Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His new novel, “The Prodigy,”—which is set at the Masters, will be published late next month.