“Hey now, you’re an All-Star, get your game on, go play … .” That silly Smash Mouth song takes me back to the summer I turned 13. Back to 1999, when Major League Baseball showcased the nominees for its All-Century Team prior to the All-Star Game held at Fenway Park.
Youth All-Star games are often used to recruit high school rosters. At the prep level, around here say the All-County or Channel League game, it tends to be more about seniors playing together one last time before graduation. Professionally, All-Star extravaganzas have become increasingly bland despite maintaining a bit of significance as more than just glorified exhibition games.
The 1992 NBA All-Star Game was a noteworthy occasion as Magic Johnson courageously returned to action and took home the MVP hardware. Most other editions of the game held every February have been very predictable. Whether the Eastern or Western Conference wins, we get more or less the same results — both teams scoring well more than 300 points combined, and electrifying dunks, alley-oops and no-look passes from the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants of the league. It’s the one night they can get away with emulating the Harlem Globetrotters.
Gimmicks put on a day or two before the actual game are commonplace in All-Star contests. Its not about simply East vs. West, American vs. National League, etc., but also the 3-Point Shootout, Slam Dunk Contest or Home Run Derby put on beforehand.
In its heyday, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest was a more refreshing pre-All-Star Game show. It was a showcase of Michael Jordan soaring in midair from the free throw line or the mere vertical leap of someone of as short a stature as Spud Webb. Except for a few surprises, say Dwight Howard whipping out the Superman cape, the dunk contest has been less awe-inspiring as of late. Too many through-the-legs, backboard tips and other standard attempts get repeated.
Of all the ESPN programming that gets replayed the most, the Home Run Derby has to be up there. For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen it re-air several times up until the All-Star Break is over. Therefore it stopped serving as appointment viewing the Monday before the All-Star Game in my book a few years ago. Not to mention the derby is another event plagued by sameness each year. Slow-pitch batting practice balls are lobbed. Kids get VIP access to shag balls that stay in the yard for outs. Chris Berman declares homers as hit “back, back, back” all the way to a suburb of whichever city the stadium is located. I doubt the new bracket format to the derby will change much of this.
Unlike the NBA, which tends to reward the likes of Pat Riley or Phil Jackson with the East and West head coaching gigs based on their teams’ first half performance, baseball picks its All-Star Game managers from the most recent pennant winning clubs. Consequently, their teams may not be off to an All-Star start to the current season.
Case in point this year with Red Sox skipper John Farrell, whose team is off to a mediocre start despite their status as the defending champs. Two years ago, Tony La Russa came out of retirement to manage the National League; despite a 0-0 record in 2012, it was a prize for ending his career on top the previous season.
To host an All-Star Game is often a reward to the club for opening a new stadium. Target Field, the Minnesota Twins’ home since 2010, has the honor this year. It landed the gig for novelty but also for replacing the Metrodome to return outdoor baseball to the Twin Cities. Three years ago, I took in a game from the left field standing room porch of the Twins’ new digs.
Supposedly more rides on the Midsummer Classic than other All-Star bouts on the count of its stipulation: The winning league gets home field advantage in the World Series. That’s what MLB would like us to think, but it also has much to do with assuring the game doesn’t embarrassingly end in a tie the way it did in 2002. Some dislike the possibility of players from a cellar-dwelling club contributing to a game with October implications. Then again, such is a product of the ruling baseball has that mandates at least one All-Star from each of the 30 clubs.
Every now and then we are presented with moments that prove the All-Star Game is worth the effort.
In 1999, it was that slight right-hander persevering against the Mark McGwires and Sammy Sosas of the senior circuit. At the height of the steroid era, when home runs were knocked out at unworldly rates, it gave us a dose of reality. To this day, Martinez’s performance helps us believe that a cleaner game can still exist.
Last year, to the tune of “Enter Sandman,” it was when everyone cleared the field in tribute to Mariano Rivera. In Minneapolis this month, I expect a similar homage to another retiring Yankee legend and class act, Derek Jeter.
The tagline to the upcoming Midsummer Classic states that “extraordinary moments happen every night in baseball. But on one night, they all happen in one place.” For better or for worse, that is what the All-Star Game should be a celebration of.
— Max McCumber is a Santa Barbara resident.