These days, baseball’s all-star game unsure of what it wants to be

In 1933, Major League Baseball held its first all-star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Babe Ruth hit a homer. Lou Gehrig made an error at first base. Lefty Grove earned the win for the American League. A total of 30 players made appearances in a game that lasted 2 hours 5 minutes.

Seventy-eight years later, the all-star game will lumber into the middle of the Sonoran Desert on Tuesday night as a bloated, nearly unrecognizable version of the exhibition conceived as a one-off, midsummer diversion by then-Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward.

If recent history is any guide, somewhere between 55 and 60 players will see action Tuesday night. The game will be preceded by a red-carpet parade through the streets outside Chase Field, all of it televised and tweeted. And, as has been the case since 2003, the winning league will earn home-field advantage in the World Series.

But the all-star game also arrives here at a crossroads of sorts, facing declining television ratings (last year’s game drew the lowest in history) and a growing feeling within the sport that the game has become too unwieldy and too unsure of what it wants to be. The very meaning and purpose of the “Midsummer Classic” appear open to interpretation.

Eight years after Commissioner Bud Selig decided to tie home-field advantage in the World Series to its outcome, there remains a disconnect between the modern all-star game’s two overriding purposes: to bring together the game’s best and most popular players as a showcase for the fans, and to decide which league gets to host Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 of the World Series.

Is it a meaningless exhibition, or a meaningful competition with significant stakes? Baseball’s answer would be: “Both.”

“I don’t view it as a problem,” said Michael Weiner, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Payers Association. “It arises from the positive aspects of the all-star game. It’s an actual game that resembles real competition. We just have to keep finding the right balance.”

For now, that balance finds the respective managers — San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy for the NL, Texas’s Ron Washington for the AL — trying to simultaneously manipulate their substitutions to allow as many players as possible to get into the game, while also trying to win and possibly secure home-field advantage in the World Series for their own teams.

One recent, lamentable trend has been to populate the rosters with semi-obscure setup relievers (no offense intended to Washington Nationals setup man Tyler Clippard, the team’s lone representative) and role players, in the hopes of gaining an advantage for one at-bat in the late innings. At the same time, baseball also insists upon perpetuating the rule requiring every team to be represented.

While a total of 68 players will dot the two all-star rosters Tuesday night — selected via a convoluted process that includes fan voting, player balloting and managerial picks — no fewer than 84 players will have earned the designation of “all-stars,” with all the attendant contractual bonuses and historical implications. Of the 16 players who withdrew after being named to the respective teams, the majority pulled out due to injuries; in addition, five pitchers were disqualified by a new rule preventing pitchers who start games on the Sunday before the all-star break from appearing in the all-star game.

“When you come, you want to play,” said Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, criticizing the “Sunday before” rule, which will prevent him from pitching in the game. “Most of us are pretty smart. We’re not going to injure ourselves in an all-star game.”

Hamels is among the majority of those 16 unable-to-play all-stars who will be in uniform anyway as the rosters are introduced before Tuesday night’s game.

“I remember as a kid seeing some guys that made the all-star games and didn’t go,” said Detroit Tigers all-star pitcher Justin Verlander, who started Sunday and thus was replaced on the AL roster. “They just didn’t want to go. It kind of disappointed me, and I always said I would never do that if I ever made it.”

But some of the sport’s most visible and popular superstars are staying away from Phoenix. The list includes a quartet of New York Yankees: shortstop Derek Jeter, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, closer Mariano Rivera and lefty CC Sabathia. Rodriguez and Rivera pulled out due to injuries, and Sabathia pitched on Sunday. The Yankees said Jeter’s withdrawal was due to concerns over a recent calf injury – which, nonetheless, did not appear to hinder him when he collected his 3,000th career hit Saturday.

“If you’re hurt, you’re hurt. That’s perfectly fine,” said San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell, not mentioning Jeter by name. “[But] come here to tip your hat [to the fans]. It’s an honor to be here. I think sometimes when you make the team 10 [or] 15 times in a row, it just becomes like another game to you. This game is for the fans. They want to see us and want to have fun.”

Baseball had an opportunity to inject the game with some much-needed star power over the weekend, amid one last wave of withdrawals, when St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, whose numbers are down this season due to both injury and underperformance, made it known he wanted to play Tuesday night in Phoenix.

Bochy, the NL manager, mulled it over but decided he would rather have a third catcher, which could increase his options for late-inning substitutions. And besides, Bochy said, “I just didn’t feel I needed another first baseman on the club.”

So, instead of Albert Pujols, the all-star game, and the fans, getMiguel Montero.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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