MIAMI -- You know what was really nice about Tuesday's All-Star Game at Marlins Park? No one left angry about anything.
Last year in San Diego, the futility of trying to turn this game into something urgent was so apparent that MLB finally decided that it would not decide home-field advantage in the World Series. Two years ago in Cincinnati, the game existed mostly for everyone to doggedly trot out their Pete Rose arguments again (myself included). Three years ago in Minneapolis, all we could talk about was Adam Wainwright giving Derek Jeter a "pipe shot." The All-Star Game seemed like another opportunity for critics to complain.
Tuesday night was … not that. Tuesday night was goofy and fun from the start. Bryce Harper, whose "let's get out there and get dirty and have a blast" attitude toward the All-Star Game seemed like the right approach, honored the late Jose Fernandez on his spikes and then made a flamboyant, diving, hair-flipping, very-Miami catch, sprawling and laughing all the way. There was Carlos Martinez, writing "JF" in the dirt behind the mound and then going out and throwing two innings of Fernandez-esque shutout ball. The iconic moment of the night featured Nelson Cruz asking Yadier Molina to take a picture of him and umpire Joe West, though I still think the moment would have been even more eternal had he asked West to take a picture of him and Molina. (Would West have taken it? If there were one umpire who would be just self-promotional to do it, it might be the country-western-singing West. Though he might have insisted he be in the photo.) And there was of course Molina himself, looking like Voltron at Mar-a-Lago.
The game was just relaxed. No players took it all that seriously, which is not the same as saying they weren't into it. If there were an unofficial host of this heavily Latin-themed All-Star Game, it wasn't Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton or Marcell Ozuna -- it was Molina, the player who greeted Roberto Clemente's family after the first pitch, the one who seemed the most likely player to join the Latin Hall of Famers like Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda and Pedro Martinez in attendance, the one in all that gold. Molina can be a hyperintense competitor, but in venues like this, particularly now that the kid who once hopped around the bases after hitting that 2006 National League Championship Series home run off Aaron Heilman has become an elder statesman, he feels like the mayor, el alcalde. Had the NL ended up winning, Molina would have been a fitting MVP choice, considering his home run -- in which he high-fived Francisco Lindor on the way around the bases -- was responsible for the NL's only run.
This is how players have always treated the All-Star Game: like it's a way to hang out with friends you don't get to see the rest of the year, a chance to chill out and be the wealthy, happy young kids in the prime of their lives that they are. It is we pundits who sometimes act like every All-Star Game is a referendum on the sport, a statement on What The Game Is Now. Nolan Arenado doesn't run out a double play to end the ASG last season because, jeez, it's late, we've all got a plane to catch tomorrow. Adam Wainwright grooves a pitch to Derek Jeter because, c'mon man, it's Derek Jeter's final All-Star Game, and you mean to tell me you don't want to see him knock a ball off the wall? This is the right attitude for the All-Star Game, what the players want and what the fans want, but when you attached home-field advantage to it, it put one in the odd position of complaining about players kicking back and taking joy in the game they play. "Why aren't you taking this more seriously? Please try to be pragmatic and looking toward the long-term competitive horizon when laughing and playing with your superhero friends."
Freed of that burden, the game could just be the lark it was meant to be. And it was thus so much more pleasant to watch. This particular contest may not have been the most memorable overall, even if I'm pretty sure I can still see the outline of Molina's chest protector when I close my eyes. (They should have given us special glasses to look directly at it, like an eclipse.) Robinson Cano's home run in the top of the 10th inning to ultimately give the American League yet another victory may have meant a lot to Mariners fans, and to Cano himself, but it didn't change anyone's life, or really much of anything. But one baseball game isn't supposed to change all that much. Why have we always put so much pressure on this one game? Let it be like most baseball games during the height of the summer: as pleasant as hanging your feet over the dock as the sun goes down. Just a nice way to spend a few hours.
This obligation to elevate the All-Star Game beyond its means is what got us into this home-field advantage mess in the first place. When Bud Selig hosted that infamous tie in Milwaukee in 2002, the problem wasn't just that both teams were out of pitchers and therefore had to end knotted up. The problem was that baseball was mired in a labor battle that year, and over the All-Star break, it looked like there might be another lockout or strike coming. The All-Star Game wasn't so much a game as it was a public airing of grievances. People were angry about the tie not because they particularly cared who won; they were angry because everyone was angry about the game at that time. When baseball ended up avoiding the work stoppage that August, it took the pressure off, but it had been scorching that July. The All-Star Game seemed to need to do more than simply be an exhibition.
It doesn't have to do that anymore. The game is healthy. The players are better than they've ever been. Everybody's having a grand old time. Thus, the game can simply exist in its purest form. If the game had gone on for another seven innings and eventually everybody ran out of pitchers, I might humbly suggest there would be much less outrage this time. It'd be not that big of a deal, just an odd quirk: a bummer, but hey, it happens. We'd let it go. The All-Star Game isn't a symbol of where baseball is. It's just a game. The players treat it that way. Now, at last, the rest of us can. It's much more fun this way. It always is.
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