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49 years after D.C. last hosted, MLB All-Star Game remains a ‘You Had to Be There’ experience

San Francisco's Wille McCovey’s two home runs tied an all-star record and helped the National League defeat the American League, 9-3, at the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington.
San Francisco's Wille McCovey’s two home runs tied an all-star record and helped the National League defeat the American League, 9-3, at the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington. (Associated Press)
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In the summer of 1969, I was not at Woodstock. I was a 21-year-old counselor at a summer camp in Virginia 100 miles south of Washington. That’s how I got to the 1969 MLB All-Star Game at RFK Stadium — by a fluke.

The game was initially rained out. Some fans couldn’t change their schedules to see the makeup game the following day. The father of a camper suddenly had extra tickets. So I was picked, as the camp’s athletic director and (face it) resident baseball lunatic, to drive the boy to the game. My payment: I got to go, too!

Upper deck, left-center field, 450-plus feet from home plate. Perfect.

It was a slugfest. The five home runs, three of them by future Hall of Famers and one by local Washington Senators hero Frank Howard, looked as if they were coming right at us until gravity won and they dove beneath us, but far over the chain-link fences.

One of Willie McCovey’s two homers smashed through the face of the big Longines clock in the center field scoreboard leaving a hole (at the 5 o’clock mark) the size of a baseball. The hole stayed there for decades. The ball? Inside, I assume. Unraveled by McCovey? Gnawed by generations of RFK rodents?

To this day, 49 years later, that game — with a home run by Johnny Bench and a leaping catch by Carl Yastrzemski to rob Bench of a second one — is one of the most vivid memories of my life. Not just sports. My whole life.

Why? Not because I was going to become a sportswriter. Such a job had never crossed my mind. Back then, the All-Star Game, in person, was a knockout event.

Here’s the surprise. When it is in your town, your home ballpark, swathed in a week-long celebration, it still is. And it will be again this year — in Nationals Park.

All-Star Game events and schedule: Everything you need to know

I’ve covered 30-some All-Star Games since — many of them not very special. Plenty were lugubrious duds on TV. But every All-Star Game I’ve attended was a joy to the town where it was held. It’s a national event that becomes an excuse for a long, lovely provincial summer party that sprawls over several days.

An MLB All-Star Game, and everything that surrounds it, is far better in person than on TV. It’s a “You Had to Be There” experience.

In ’69, there was little more than the game itself. That had power because, before interleague play, many fans (including me) had never seen a single National League superstar, such as Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, play in person. And, as it turned out, no National Leaguer ever played in Washington again until 2005 when the Montreal Expos relocated here.

The All-Star Game itself is now more like a tentpole for a larger, longer five-day baseball circus and county fair. It’s a celebration, a ritual and a memory factory more than it’s a one-night contest. The game’s pageantry (and profit) has spread to include the five-day FanFest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center starting Friday, as well as the All-Star Game itself Tuesday, the Home Run Derby on Monday and the Futures Game with hot minor leaguers Sunday.

Don’t ask me to describe MLB Assembly at District Pier on the Wharf or Play Ball Park at the Yards near Nationals Park — both open all five days. Ask Google.

But it’s all part of a benevolent plot to make it seem that your city has been invaded by baseball — everywhere and in every form — with parades, displays of memorabilia, Library of Congress symposia, autograph sessions, crowded hotel scenes with the baseball world passing through the lobbies, gala parties and whatever anybody can dream up that has balls with stitches and wooden bats.

Usually I shun “event sprawl,” a specialty of the Super Bowl. But I always find myself smiling at the annual FanFest, correctly billed as the largest interactive baseball theme park in the world. Baseball (and softball) is an affinity community that has deeper multigenerational roots than any other sport. Many come to this huge smorgasbord to bump into old friends or make new ones. The age span always feels like 3 to 103. Sure, a lot is hokey, you must buy a ticket and, if you don’t already care about baseball, FanFest probably won’t convert you. But, for me, it’s where you usually feel the pulse of the event, the sense of buildup.

At FanFests, you meet and get free autographs from players — including Hall of Famers coming to D.C., such as Bench, Dave Winfield and Gaylord Perry (dare you to ask him where he hid the jelly for his spitball), as well as ex-Nats such as Chad Cordero, Livan Hernandez, Davey Johnson, Dmitri Young and Kevin Frandsen (making sure you’re paying attention) and softball stars, too, including Jennie Finch.

What you’re also getting is a sense of the 150-year baseball continuum, from displays of long-dead greats to seeing former players of many ages as well as 10-year-olds getting their fastball timed. It heightens interest for what’s to come.

At times I think the All-Star Game is just an Am-I-Jaded-Yet meter for adults. One that usually gives back the answer for which we hoped: “No.”

Looking back at 1969, the surprise for me is that as star-studded as it seemed at the time, I didn’t appreciate half of what I was watching. Now we know that there were 20 Hall of Famers on the ’69 rosters: Mays, Aaron, Bench, Frank Robinson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Brooks Robinson, Juan Marichal, Tony Perez, Yastrzemski, McCovey, Ron Santo and more. Is that even possible?

Yet Bench was only 21, Jackson and Carew 23, Seaver and Carlton 24. None had yet had his first huge breakout season, though some were in the midst of it in ’69. Pete Rose (a Hall of Fame-caliber player) still had more than 3,000 hits to go, and knuckleballer Phil Niekro, then 30 and obscure, barely had 40 career wins yet finished with 318.

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The trademark of the All-Star Game is that it surprises us with its pleasures — many of them in the days before the game, or in the pageantry of the game. But then it shocks us in hindsight as we look back at how much greater those players became, and how much more pleasure they provided, than we thought they possibly could at the time we first saw them together.

Last year, I got an email at my Washington Post address from a Stephen Leonard who said he wanted to settle a question about an old tall tale in his baseball-loving family. Had I really gone to the 1969 All-Star Game with his father, Will, and his brother, Biff, who was then attending Camp Whitehall? Must be a different Tom Boswell, right?

The email chain since then has gotten very long, as have the lengths to which Stephen and Biff have gone to make sure their father, now in his mid-80s, didn’t learn that I was trying to get tickets to the Home Run Derby to repay him and spend some time catching up with the family. The cat is now out of the bag.

All of us seem touched, though we barely know each other, and we’re not quite sure why. Something about 49 years between All-Star Games, memories, age and reconnection with baseball as the link. Just resuming a conversation.

The MLB All-Star Game is coming. Count the days. If you have the feel of baseball in you, you’ll be amazed how much you — and, perhaps even more important, the family and friends with you — are delighted and surprised by all the facets of this five-day feast. Likely you’ll wish it would come again soon.

It won’t. Twice in a lifetime for me. Hope that Bryce Harper wins the Home Run Derby. Hope Max Scherzer starts for the National League. Hope it doesn’t rain. Though, sometimes, even that works out pretty well.