MIAMI — The best way to make improvements on an annual event, in a year over year way, is to take notes immediately rather than hanging around 10 months and saying, “Wait. What did we want to change?” Baseball’s 88th All-Star Game ended Tuesday night in Miami. The 89th version, you may have heard (and if you haven’t, that’s a problem) takes place at Nationals Park. Washington, you’re officially on the clock.
It’s time to think about what we want from our moment in baseball’s spotlight. The last All-Star Game in the District was in 1969, when Hank Aaron hit third for the visiting NL and Frank Robinson third for the home-standing AL and Willie McCovey of the Giants hit two homers to lead the senior circuit to a 9-3 victory at RFK Stadium.
The All-Star Game then isn’t the All-Star Game now. Then, Denny McLain was supposed to be the starting pitcher for the AL, but he arrived late, via his own plane, on that Wednesday night. That’s not an option for the players next year. Major League Baseball has turned the game into a week-long baseball exhibition/convention.
What we learned from Miami: All of it can be improved. This is on the Nationals and MLB, of course. But it’s also on us. This is a time to give the country a glimpse into the kind of baseball town Washington — a baseball wasteland for 33 years — has become since the sport returned in 2005. And we have one shot; this thing ain’t coming back here for a generation.
With that, some suggestions to improve the whole week.
Make FanFest a fest, not a trade show: The centerpiece in the run-up to the Tuesday night game actually begins the previous Thursday, with the MLB-produced FanFest, which will be staged at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center downtown. Shame it can’t be closer to the ballpark, but that’s the space.
What can be controlled: What happens there. The FanFest in Miami felt sterile and disorganized, a little like a used car sale — if used car sales had DJs asking to “Make some noise!” You need all of the elements Miami had — batting cages, chances to clock your pitch on a radar gun, virtual reality, a mini-field, etc.
But can’t we make this a six-day baseball conversation and experience? Miami had a host of former players and characters come through. Let’s add to that. Get Charlie Slowes and/or Phil Wood and/or F.P. Santangelo — all of them and more — to lead sessions and interviews that run all day long. Invite back original Nationals — Chad Cordero and Brian Schneider and Nick Johnson and Jose Vidro and, most of all, Robinson — to come in, share their memories, answer questions, sign autographs.
Embrace the old Senators (hint: Frank Howard should be there), tell the story of the Homestead Grays, all while enhancing the interactive experiences that will get kids excited about the game to come.
Don’t import the youth. Connect with them: If baseball is going to be a success in the District a generation from now — heck, if it’s going to be a success anywhere — it needs to tap into a demographic that finds it easy to turn away. MLB hosts a “Youth Classic” around all-star week. Nearly 200 kids and coaches — plus their families — attend. Next year, you need to.
Stage the Youth Classic at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, across the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington. Get the game’s heaviest hitters — Commissioner Rob Manfred, members of the Lerner family, Dusty Baker, whomever — to attend. That would bring the media. That would bring exposure. That would bring excitement. Make it a carnival, with DMV kids as the centerpiece.
MLB also stages a “Play Ball Park” on which to host its Pitch, Hit and Run competition for kids. Let’s throw that down in the Navy Yard, walking distance to Nationals Park, where you would get spillover interest from fans attending Sunday’s Futures Game, Monday’s Home Run Derby and the game itself.
Keep Metro open late: SafeTrack will be over. Charge the Lerners. Charge MLB. Split the cost. But let this be the last time we write about this.
Keeping Metro open past midnight on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights would allow fans to remain at the bars and restaurants in the Navy Yard (which should stay open late, too, by the way), thus exposing a new group of people to the District’s redevelopment success story — a civic success story that has baseball as its centerpiece.
Make the Home Run Derby even greater: We know that Bryce Harper will participate (if he makes the All-Star Game), and that automatically ups the profile. But is there a way Harper can pressure — or at least prod — his peers to participate? Start with Kris Bryant. The 2016 National League MVP didn’t make this year’s All-Star Game, so he would have to do his part. But he grew up in Harper’s home town of Las Vegas. There’s a kinship. Make it happen.
Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, the past two champions, are musts. But maybe D.C. could get the best possible field — and provide a little regional flavor — by landing two of these three Orioles: Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis and/or Manny Machado.
That gets you to six total participants. After his performance Monday night, Justin Bour of the Marlins — late of Westfield High and George Mason — should be a shoo-in. Then leave one spot open for next summer’s flavor of the month — the 2018 version of Cody Bellinger, whoever surprises with power and pop. You would have a Monday night showcase that would energize the ballpark and create momentum going into Tuesday’s main event.
Don’t punt on the parade: Did you even realize the players are paraded through each all-star city, sweating in the back of convertibles? The people of Miami didn’t seem to. And the route didn’t incorporate much of anything that’s iconic. Ocean Boulevard in Miami Beach, perhaps?
What is Washington if not iconic? The parade must, must, must run along the Mall, perhaps snaking in an “S” shape down Seventh Street from Constitution to Independence, then back up Fourth, then back down in front of the U.S. Capitol before shooting down New Jersey Avenue toward Nationals Park. The route already would be lined with tourists visiting the Smithsonian museums, so you would get a baseball audience and a casual audience, and that’s one thing you want from all all-star events — satisfaction for the hardcore fans who made the journey specifically for this event but exposure to baseball for people who wouldn’t otherwise seek it out.
There’s only one choice for each national anthem: The anthems in Miami were both flawed (Canadian singer Jocelyn Alice giggled, rather disrespectfully, as she sang the Canadian anthem) and unremarkable (someone named Bebe Rexha sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”). MLB tends to enlist performers whose names can be preceded by “such-and-such recording artist,” which states their credentials.
But our anthem singers don’t need any hackneyed verification. For “O! Canada,” give us Master Sergeant Caleb Green and Sergeant Major Bob McDonald, the retired servicemen who perform regularly (and spectacularly) at Capitals games, so they’re familiar with the tune. And for our national anthem: D.C. Washington, please. His name is the best of all the names. His anthem is the best of all the anthems. We love him here. Expose him to everyone.
Check the radar: Who do we consult about this one? When the Home Run Derby ended Monday night, the fans in Miami walked into a torrential downpour. But they likely weren’t even cognizant of it during the competition because Marlins Park has a roof.
Nationals Park does not. For much of the summer, Washington is — how should we put this? — a swamp. Pray those three days in mid-July are the three mid-July days next summer when thunderstorms aren’t part of the forecast. (And breathe easily, Nats fans: MLB is in charge of when to play and when to delay for the All-Star Game, not the Nats.)
Late Tuesday night, with the game long over, a parking garage near Marlins Park was still emptying out. A frustrated motorist, eager to move forward, sarcastically screamed out his window, “Nice job, Miami! Great job hosting!”
That can’t be Washington, a year from now. Make your notes now, and get to work.