MIAMI -- One of the more bewildering talking points I've seen wafting up from Baseball Media World in the days leading up to the All-Star Game is frustration that, of all things, this year's All-Star Game (7:30 ET on FOX) "doesn't mean anything" now that home-field advantage in the World Series is no longer on the line. Here's ESPN's (generally excellent) David Schoenfield in his big All-Star Game preview: "Now that 'This time it counts' no longer exists ... well, I kind of miss it! In theory, the game mattered, even if it was an exhibition. Now, it's just an exhibition game; the big stars will get two at-bats and be replaced by a bunch of guys from bad teams." I have heard this constantly in Miami this week. If the All-Star Game is just a meaningless showcase now, why are we even bothering?
This is pretty rich. Since Bud Selig put the initiative in place in 2003, home-field advantage for the World Series being on the line at the All-Star Game had been despised by many of these same critics. Every July, we'd hear another diatribe about the disconnect between the stakes and the spirit of the game. Remember three years ago, when Adam Wainwright admitted giving Derek Jeter a "pipe shot" to lead off his final ASG and made everyone confront how little the players actually cared about winning the game? Or last year, when Nolan Arenado grounded into a double play in the final at-bat of the game and barely jogged down to first base, even though ostensibly home-field advantage was on the line and This Game Counts? I didn't hear anyone sniff at Arenado for not running out the double play, even though it's difficult to imagine any player doing something similar in a regular-season game and not getting benched and excoriated in the press for it. Why? Because it's an exhibition. It was always an exhibition. Now it's merely official.
But now that home-field advantage has been detached from the All-Star Game, we can concentrate on what in fact makes the game itself great. As always, the All-Star Game is baseball's opportunity to have the entire sports stage to itself -- with apologies to the WNBA and the Gold Cup -- and thus it's also a terrific marketing opportunity. This is a game that is peaking in so many ways at this current cultural moment: revenue, young talent, worldwide fandom, competitive parity, dingers. There is much work in the sport that needs to be done, but it's not a bad time at all for baseball to show a little leg. Now that we're rid of the home field advantage proviso, the All-Star Game will do what it does best: showcase the great sport.
Here is what baseball should focus on (or keep focusing on), at this All-Star Game and the others in the future.
Never, ever get rid of the fan vote. There is nothing more tiresome than complaining about the fans' votes. Yes, sometimes they don't pick the guy having the best season by WAR. But they generally get the big stuff right. The biggest story in baseball this year is Aaron Judge, a player whom few baseball fans outside of New York had heard of six months ago. But the fans recognized immediately his importance and voted him in. Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Mookie Betts, Arenado … these are precisely the players who should be showcased in this game, and the fans voted them all in. Trust them. Listen to them. If they vote a goat as a starting second baseman, start the goat.
Have a designated legends spot, or two, or five. I've written about this before, but the All-Star Game needs Ichiro Suzuki. It needs Miguel Cabrera. It needs Albert Pujols. Heck, it needs Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran. If you're on a Hall of Fame track -- if you're an obvious, no-doubt future Hall of Famer like those five -- then you need to be in this game. When you talk to your parents or grandparents about their early baseball fandom, you don't ask them, "Did you see a competitive game? Did your team win the game you went to?" You ask them, "Did you see Musial play? Koufax? Mantle?" Youth should be the central focus of the All-Star Game. But there's no reason to keep out a Hall of Famer just because they had a slow first half.
Continue to pick someone from every team. We joke about this a lot, but you know what? There are lots of baseball fans in San Diego, and they're going to enjoy watching when Brad Hand gets in the game tonight, or at least gets introduced. I'll be attending Tuesday's game with my parents -- diehard Cardinals fans -- and even though they'll enjoy the game, they'll be waiting the entire time to see Carlos Martinez and Yadier Molina. Of course you want to see your own players on this stage. Who wouldn't?
Choose a "Spirit of the Game" player for each team. All-Star Games benefit often when they include someone who isn't a superstar but has a compelling story that you can sell to the casual, just-driving-by viewer. Think of it as the American Ninja Warrior principle: If viewers are invested in the story of an athlete, they will cheer for him or her with passion, even if the passion is only temporary. We want a human story. You know who would have been great this year? How about Jameson Taillon? You don't think America would get behind a pitcher throwing an inning in an All-Star Game two months after undergoing cancer surgery? People want inspiration from their sports. Here is a tailor-made opportunity. The rosters have already expanded. Why not include a great story like this one? Plus: Taillon's really good!
Let celebrities -- or fans! -- be first- and third-base coaches. Think of this as the Rock 'N' Jock pivot. To encourage the players to relax and have fun -- a key aspect to the game we'll get to in our final point -- let's create an atmosphere of playfulness. A great way to do this would be to have famous celebrities from the area and fans be first-base and third-base coaches, who don't (or shouldn't, anyway) do anything during the All-Star Game, anyway. Switch it up every three innings! Take this year. How about this for first- and third-base coaches:
Innings 1-3: AL: Pitbull and The Rock; NL: Eva Mendes and Ricky Martin
Innings 4-6: AL: Rick Ross and Pat Riley; NL: Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas
Innings 7-8: AL: Dion Waiters and Dan Marino; NL: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
Inning 9: Winners of a fan contest.
How would that not be fun?
Continue to encourage the players to cut loose and be silly. This is the key thing. The most memorable moments of All-Star Games are when the greatest baseball players on the planet act like the kids they all really are. We need more of this:
Did you see how much fun all the players were having watching Judge at the T-Mobile Home Run Derby Monday night? That's the vibe the game itself should have -- and does have. Just everybody hanging out and having fun before the second half of the season starts and it all gets real serious. The All-Star Game doesn't have to pretend it's anything other than a festival of joy anymore. We can now embrace the irreverence. This sport is super fun. Now the All-Star Game can simply be that.
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