Though he appeared to be all business on the mound, Nationals ace Max Scherzer enjoyed the opportunity to start for the National League in the All-Star Game and face the best hitters the American League had to offer. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
How the 1981 All-Star Game ended really didn’t matter. There was no Twitter, no television or radio sports shock-talk and no blogs, so when American League manager Jim Frey had to bat Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb in the bottom of the ninth inning with one out and none on down a run, there were questions asked and answers given. Period.
Frey had saved Fred Lynn for that situation. But Lynn was apparently unaware, and, as was the case with so many players in the game in the ’70s and ’80s, had left and was flying home to Boston as Stieb grabbed a bat.
We were simply happy that the 1981 strike was over and we’d seen the first game played by major league players in more than two months. We were happy to see Gary Carter hit two home runs, happy to be in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium—then known as the Mistake by the Lake.
Personally, my mother had died a week earlier, and my father was going on life support, and the return of baseball was a diversion to familial agony. Baseball is routine, everyday life, normalcy from the fracture of ones life, the reminder that life goes on one measure at a time.
Let’s be honest: no sport’s all-star game is that sport’s reality. We fell in love with the spectacle of basketball’s slam-dunk contests. While Larry Bird and Bill Russell won championships, as did Michael Jordan’s defense and Lebron James’ inclusive game and the team-game mentality that made the NBA's Warriors and Spurs so extraordinary. Baseball’s All-Star Game decides nothing now; the World Series home-field advantage probably should be decided by which league wins the interleague play series anyway.
The home run derby is baseball’s slam-dunk contest. Sure, there are no Max Scherzer sliders or Kenley Jansen cutters or Craig Kimbrel curveballs, just as there was no Russell to drown a dunk over a car. The way MLB has shortened and tinkered with the contest has probably made it the highlight of the three-day festivities, except those of us like John Manuel, Jim Callis and myself for whom the Futures Game is the event.
It’s fun, and it leads to what the All-Star Game is becoming—a showcase of the best players playing a game for fun, the way they played in their backyards and empty fields when they were 10 years old. These are people, not statistical broadsheets. They’re human. Clayton Kershaw, one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, said before this year’s game that while he couldn’t pitch in the game (he started Sunday), he was "honored” to be there "because they do such a great job with the event and for the players, and it’s fun to be with so many great players.”
This is not about wins above replacement or other advanced metrics. It’s just an exhibition of the best having fun playing the game, knowing almost every one of us would love to be out there on that field with those players, enjoying every moment. Frank Robinson wouldn’t have been miked to talk to Joe Buck while he played right field, but having Bryce Harper do so—in his Jose Fernandez memorial shoes in Fernandez’s ballpark—was fun. Fine. Human. The guy’s a generational talent who has been on center stage since he was turning old enough to get his driver’s license.
Thurman Munson wouldn’t have had someone take a picture of him with umpire Doug Harvey, as Nelson Cruz did with Joe West. It was fun. Still, Chris Sale and Scherzer openly talked about the joy of facing the best hitters in the game. Mookie Betts’ 92 mph throw from the outfield to second base was worth watching, maybe the game’s highlight. So were Nolan Arenado’s joy, the sight of Carlos Correa and Corey Seager, and on and on. Kevin Millar got the best of Joey Votto, Sean Casey and David Ortiz explaining Aaron Judge’s swing, which was simply great television.
Then give thanks for the respect and dignity of Judge and Cody Bellinger.
While we’re at it, if the game is tied after nine innings, rather than moving on, why not designate three batters from each team to have a five-swing home run derby shootout?
The voting is something fans are supposed to get into, not be critiqued like a law school exam. Pitching changes in an exhibition don’t need judicial review.
It is what it is. Fun. I remember how much fun it was in The Mistake by the Lake and with Dave Stieb having to hit, because we knew how much we need the daily routine of the box scores, the six-month life known as the season that diverts us from the real world.
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So I hope Mookie is wired next season, or George Springer or Jose Altuve. It is what it is: the best baseball players in the world having fun playing like they’re 10 years old, again, reminding us that we’re only young once, but we can always be immature.