How I’d fix it: The MLB All-Star Weekend

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I don’t remember who won or lost, and I don’t care.

As is the case with most of my early sports memories, the ones I have concerning the MLB All Star-Game revolve around Chicago sports figures. First it was Frank Thomas dropping a bomb in the 1995 All-Star Game and later, during my brief flirtation with the Chicago Cubs, it was Slammin’ Sammy ripping through the field in the Home Run Derby. I watch the futures game, Celebrity Softball Game and every inning of the Midsummer Classic Itself. I’ve watched and obsessed since I saw the Big Hurt go deep that first time.  In the time since, I watched Ted Williams make it really dusty in Fenway Park, Pedro Martinez destroy the prime of the steroid era, Torii Hunter rob Barry Bonds of a homer and Cal Ripken Jr.  say goodbye. What stands out in all those memories is that at no point did I care about, or even remember who won or lost the game. I rooted for White Sox players, and in general, the American league, but deep down I didn’t really care too much. I know that the tie in 2004 left a sour taste in some people’s mouths, but giving home field advantage to the winning league in the World Series doesn’t get to the root of the issue- players just don’t care about the All Star game.  Old-school fans bring up Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse as an example of “The Good Old Days”, but that play ruined Ray Fosse’s career, so I don’t really view that as a positive either.

Instead of trying to make the game matter or bring back an intensity, we need to accept the fact that All-Star Games are unquestionably lame. The thought behind them is great: take the best players in the world, pit them against each other and count on their competitiveness to make things interesting. For a long time, the saving grace of the All-Star Game was the novelty of seeing National League and American League stars face off. We didn’t see Greg Maddux pitching to Ken Griffey Jr. outside of this situation, and it made you genuinely curious as to how the situation would play out. With the expansion of inter-league play to it’s now continuous state, MLB Network and MLB TV packages, this novelty is gone. Not only do we get to see these players against each other, but even if we miss it, we can watch the analysis and replays for the weeks after online. When you throw in a shortened attention span of the general public and a ‘buddy-buddy’ attitude that many modern players have (thereby killing any competitive juices), the fans don’t care any more than the players do. The TV ratings have reflected this, and even with a peak in viewership last year, the 7.5 rating is a far cry from the ratings in the mid-teens from the 1990’s.
In an effort to counter the growing public apathy, MLB has pushed harder every year to make things matter. The aforementioned tie in 2004 gave us the home field advantage rule with the feeble cry of “This one counts!” from the league offices, but all they’ve counted is the number of fans who just don’t care. We’ve had the advent of the “Final Player Vote” for the last roster spot in each league, multiple revampings of the Home Run Derby and the continuation of the loathsome Celebrity Softball Game.
This year is no different, as the powers that be eliminated paper ballots in stadiums and changed the Home Run Derby to a timed event as opposed to the 10 outs per player format that is the standard. While I applaud the most stubborn organization this side of the PGA for at least recognizing and attempting to fix their broken event, all the things they’re trying just aren’t working. Luckily for them, and all of you, things aren’t beyond repair, we just need to get a little creative.

Snoop Lion plus wiffleball- everyone wins.

Celebrity Softball Game:
As fun as it is to see Jennie Finch putting Adrian Peterson in his place, I think we’ve reached the entertainment ceiling on this part of All-Star Weekend. The solution to this problem is to just do away with the game entirely, but if we have to keep the event, let’s switch it up to something that can bring back the nostalgia and whimsy of a summertime get-together: backyard wiffleball. We can keep the celebrity rosters, but let’s bring in a designated wiffleball pitcher, like this guy, for at least one inning.  This year’s roster has enough legitimate athletes like Vlad Guererro, Jennie Finch and Sean Casey that it would be cool to see trying to hit the crazy pitches, along with the entertainment value of Snoop Dogg getting really confused about why the ball is moving around so much. On top of that, it would be fun to see guys like Nick Lachey and Kirk Herbstreit get taken down a peg while they flail wildly at the pitches. What would happen? Would Snoop get frustrated and try to smoke the outfield grass to mellow out? I can just see Nick Lachey throwing a hissy fit and storming out. The entertainment ceiling goes up enormously.  The rest of the game can feature the celebrities pitching to each other, and we would get to see the fun of wiffleball combined with the competitiveness of these famous (and semi-famous) people trying to prove that they’re not completely worthless outside of being pretty.

Home Run Derby: 
The original Home Run Derby was set in a nine inning format with each batter receiving three outs per inning. Not only was any swing not resulting in a home run considered an out, any pitch judged to be in the strike zone was an out as well. The best part of this format was the fun of seeing the superstars of that era matched up head to head. On top of  that, while one star batted, the other provided awkward commentary as he waited his turn. The participants at various times included Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willy Mays and Harmon Killebrew. The players were enticed to give it their best by the $2000 bonus awarded to the winner, along with the chance to come back the next week to defend their title. 4 consecutive home runs gave you an extra grand, and with an average MLB salary of 13 grand (The highest salary was WIllie Mays’ 80,000), the prospect of 2 or 3 thousand in extra cash was nothing to sneeze at. As I mentioned earlier, this event has been revamped and remade more than Joan Rivers face. We’ve had team formats, group stages and even one awful year where different countries were represented. This may have been my least favorite iteration, as it led to the inclusion of such “sluggers” as Hee Sop Choi and Ivan Rodriguez who combined that season for a total 29 dingers. Luckily, the league realized how awful this idea was, and went right back to tinkering.  Despite all these efforts, people continue to not care and the event was changed again this year to a timed format. Whether this sparks interest or not remains to be seen, but my money is on the latter.

People may never completely care, but instead of just players hitting home runs, let’s add a complete skills contest. There’s a constant debate amongst fans and analysts about which players are the fastest, who has the best throwing arm and which pitchers can bring the most heat. We can keep the home run derby, but instead of total home runs, make it a contest  of who can club the longest homer. I don’t want to see guys conserving their energy and trying to pace themselves, I want to see Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant swinging as hard as they can to hit a 550 foot blast out of the stadium. On top of that, let’s take the fastest guys like Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon and time them around the bases. We can have target practice from the outfield and finish it off with the guys who have hit 100 MPH plus with their fastball this year. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to see Aroldis Chapman try and throw a ball 110 MPH or Yoenis Cespedes hit a target from 300 feet. Players make too much money for financial incentive to matter, but you can still appeal to their pride. Everyone wants to bring back a competitive atmosphere, and nothing sparks competition quite like putting pride on the line in head to head contests.

So now that we’ve fixed (or at least revamped) the rest of All-Star Weekend, we can take a look at the game itself. I mentioned it in the open, but the main reasons fans used to love the All-Star game were centered around the idea of the game as a unique attraction. No matter how you feel about interleague play, it’s not going anywhere. Even if MLB didn’t make tons of money off it, the move of Houston to the American League necessitated interleague play at all times to avoid giving one team from each league three games off at a time at all times. So, the novelty is gone, the competitiveness won’t ever be up to a Rose-like level (Thank God); what can be done to bring back interest?

The All-Star Game:
It’s simple; one thing people love more than almost anything else is when we get a glimpse into the lives of professional athletes. We love Hard Knocks on HBO and the Path to the Draft series on NFL Network because we get to see players in a relatively unscripted environment. We see them joking around with their teammates, crying over failures and celebrating their successes. Most importantly, we see them with their wives and kids, doing things that normal people do. We know that they don’t live normal lives, but when we see them in their normal day, we feel like we can relate to them for a brief moment. So, the real issue is how to capture this feeling during an All-Star Game. If you or I were in the dugout or on the field at the Mid-Summer Classic, we’d be taking selfies, tweeting, and posting all over social media. So, let’s have the players do just that. Don’t just allow them to have their phones, encourage it. Let us see pictures and video of athletes joking around, pointing out pretty girls in the crowd and occasionally trading tips about the game itself. Let us pretend that they’re normal people for a minute or two. We still won’t care about the game, but we’ll pay attention to what they have to say and the goofy stuff they might be up to.

The other thing people love is seeing the game from a players perspective. The solution here: put a camera on the catcher and pitcher at all times. Let us see just how fast the ball comes in, how much a curveball breaks and how insane the overall pace of the action is. When you show things from the standard long camera angle, the pitch seems to hang in the air for the batter to destroy. Announcers always say that hitting a pitched ball is the hardest thing in sports, so show us just how hard it is. In short, make the players seem normal, and then snap us back to reality and show us just how amazing they really are.

 

I’m a sports geek, so I know that I’ll be tuning in for most of the All-Star festivities, but I’m not the demographic they want. Baseball has survived on it’s long time fan base, but just ask boxing and golf how that story ends. To quote Big Tom Callahan in Tommy Boy- “You’re either growing or your dying, there ain’t no third direction.”
I grew up with baseball as my favorite sport, and the All-Star Game being one of my favorite parts of the season. I don’t like seeing it die a slow death. Please, Commissioner Manfried, fix this mess before it dies completely.

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