Published July 10, 2012
I was on 12 All-Star rosters, most as a legit All-Star deserving of the honor of representing the National League as one of that year's best players.
In 1980, I missed the game with a pulled muscle. And in 1989, I was voted to the team as a starter after I had retired. In each case the replacement was a player deserving and capable of carrying out the assignment in my place. His first-half body of work that season was rewarded.
Back then, the fans picked the game's starters. That's all, the starters. The managers picked the remainder of the roster so that as the game progressed into the deciding innings, each league would have its best on the field.
Every year, the fan voting is skewed to elect players based on popularity, not on production. That's OK because the game has been labeled "for the fans." This game for the fans, however, now carries a significant prize: World Series home field, which is why the field personnel must decide on the final roster.
The All-Star game has become the black sheep event of Bud Selig's tenure as baseball commissioner. Try as he might, he can't get it to where it once was.
Back in the day, it was a game each league wanted to win. Willie Mays was picked for 24 All-Star games and played nine innings in many. When I started my run in the '70s, reporting to the game meant joining Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Joe Torre, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Tony Perez, and others who demanded we play to win.
Get this: Winning didn't mean anything other than league pride. Mr. Selig is still hunting for the answer as to why the All-Star game these days has gotten away from that attitude.
Maybe his game has given way in importance to other All-Star events, like the Home Run Derby? Maybe his player voting and selection system has created confusion. By placing the World Series home-field advantage on the game's outcome — while at the same time allowing fan voting to play the major role in roster selection — he confuses not only baseball fans, but me, too.
Maybe the players themselves just aren't of the mind to accept the game as serious. Understandable, as their entire existence as athletes is an open book to the media and TV already, why would they consider another three days of national TV exposure an exciting opportunity? For them, a chance to rest or heal a small injury is more important. For us back in the day, it was a chance to actually see a national TV camera. We wanted to be there, and win.
One reason the old-school charm and league pride is missing — interleague play. There is no Big Red Machine or Lumber Company that the other league is jealous of. There is no mystery or challenge in facing the other league's players. There is no Hatfields vs. McCoys mentality. Today, it's rosters of many who once were teammates, who have played in both leagues or have faced one another many times.
I remember facing Nolan Ryan in the 1979 game. You want mystery? Hatfield vs. McCoy mentality? Wow, my entire existence as a hitter was on display nationally, and guess what, so was his. It was the best in one league against the best in the other. A classic confrontation. That's what's missing.
It's hard to put into words. In baseball today, the game is just not set up to create those kind of Reggie Jackson vs. Bob Gibson or Hank Aaron vs. Jim Palmer confrontations at the All-Star game. Those moments were its essence. Facing a legend, not because he was famous for being famous, but because of the mystery, the respect, facing someone I had only heard stories about, someone who was going to set up a moment in time that all fans, and we in the game would remember for a long time.
About six years ago, I was asked to head a committee of Hall of Famers to study the All-Star game and report to the commissioner on ways to improve its competitiveness and the experience for the players. Our efforts led us to several conclusions, which have not gained any strength — with one exception, that the game be played on Wednesday, not Tuesday.
Others ideas included a nominal financial reward for the winning league and players; Hall of Famers from each league acting as honorary coaches; and a private dinner gala exclusively for players and coaches, where today's players would get an opportunity to visit the history of the game.
As for tying the All-Star game and World Series home-field advantage, you have no idea how important that is until you are in the Series and don't have it. Allowing anyone other than the manager and his coaches to influence the nonstarting rosters is a travesty.
Enter the selection of Bryce Harper as a replacement in this year's game. First, understand I have a great respect for Harper's game and his presence as a first-year player, and believe in time he has what it takes to become a perennial All-Star. The greatest compliment I could give him is to say he plays the game the way Pete did. I also understand that he has nothing to do with the selection process, that he is just going along with the program and will have to absorb the accompanying negative reaction.
Baseball just doesn't get it. Jason Kubel has 15 home runs and 60 RBIs, Aaron Hill has 11 and 40, Hunter Pence has 16 and 50, Aramis Ramirez has 10 and 52 and Jason Heyward has 14 and 41, just to name five players who deserve it. These guys, based on their first-half performance, must give way to a player the fans want to see in a game. It's not consistent with such a heavy reward for winning the game. Each manager really wants to pick a team he can win with, balanced and able to create the right matchups in late innings.
Harper has All-Star talent and might even display it in the game. I wouldn't put it past him to rope a double and end up on third and score the winning run by stealing home. The first one to shake his hand, of course, will be Cole Hamels.
It's all so confusing to us old folks. Back in May, Hamels drills Harper in the ribs for being a brash rookie who is famous for being famous. Harper was the kid who blew a kiss at a pitcher while rounding the bases on a home run. He was the most decorated rookie ever to enter the majors. So, Hamels drills him for being famous, Harper then steals home on Hamels, maybe the best payback ever. But he is not cocky or brash, but classy. I thought that was an "in your face" moment if ever there was one.
Now Harper is Hamels' teammate, on the National League All-Star team, an eight-home run and 25-RBI All-Star, while at least five others with deserving stats won't be. Fan voting at its finest. The perfect summation for all this confusion is to say, "It is what it is." I love that line — it allows us to accept something without good reason.
Let's face it, marketing dollars and television have become more important than competition and credibility at this game and every game, except golf. The All-Star game, in whatever form presented, will get major media attention, a significant national TV audience and have a profound effect on the Kansas City economy.
No matter who does the voting, who makes the roster or how memorable the competition, the game will be an event and it will satisfy sponsors. Maybe that's all we should ask of it? Me, I'm just an old confused guy who remembers when it did both.