All-Star Game: Exhibition or War for Bragging Rights
I just read Dave Campbell's ESPN article on among other things possible trades. It's nice to see that the Yankees are thinking along the lines that I mentioned earlier. i.e., trying to pick up a veteran reliever, and it's even nicer to see that my Phils may dump the salary of silly pickup Dan Plesac.
Campbell then discusses the All-Star game and how an emphasis on winning must be re-instilled in the managers and players. Much has been made about the lack of motivation to win (or in this case even complete) an All-Star game. Players are shuttled in and out of the game in an effort to please every possible fan market, lefties jokingly bat right against Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds grabs Torii Hunter in mock anger after being robbed of a home run by an outstanding catch by the latter, etc. It becomes a forum for anyone looking for a soapbox from which to bloviate: players are coddled too much, the rosters need to be expanded, the managers need to be under stricter control, a less indecisive commissioner is needed, blah blah blah.
However, the feeling among the players and managers that the game is just an exhibition for the fans is less their opinion and more a reaction to the changes in baseball over the last few decades. When I was a kid growing up in an NL town, the only time that I got to watch the American League was on Saturday afternoons if the game of the week feature two AL clubs. The games looked different in the AL: first you had the DH, the game was more of a power game whereas the NL was based on speed, the pitchers relied more on finesse than power, the strike zone was different, umpires whose names you did not recognize wore different uniforms and drew puffy shields in front of themselves as they set for the pitch. They played in exotic locales like Arlington and Bloomington. There were two times that Moses let loose the waters of the Red Sea and allowed these two worlds to meet. One was the World Series, the other the All-Star game. If you wanted to see Tom Seaver face Reggie Jackson, either you were lucky enough to have their teams win their respective leagues and compete in the World Series or you watched the All-Star game. That's what made it special.
In the intervening years baseball has removed the offices of the league presidents and subsumed their functions under the commissioner's office. Interleague play allows fans to see stars from different leagues face each other on a fairly regular basis. The Milwaukee Brewers switched leagues. Umpires are no longer segmented into different leagues with different connotations of the rules and different uniforms and equipment. The DH still exists but it is no longer a source of pride as much as a burden to bear for the AL.
The differences between the styles of play have diminished over the years as well. Expansion has genericized the style in general. "Small Ball", once the style of the NL, has been supplanted by power. The Yankees were regarded as an NL-style team a few years ago because they deigned to steal a base or play hit-and-run occasionally.
Also, the differences between the players in the two leagues have lessened. Players are no longer regarded as National Leaguers or American Leaguers-- free agency went a long way to change that perception (the perception has changed, but I'm not necessarily saying that players switch leagues more often today). At one time, the NL was seen as the league for which more Latin American and African-American players toiled. Beating the AL was then a source of pride. A comradery among all of the players was engendered by the growth of the Players' Union under Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr. The players are no longer ignorant rubes who can be worked up to a hateful lather or threatened into submission by the league president before the All-Star game.
The All-Star event itself has also changed. The day before is reserved for a good-spirited exhibition of power with the home run derby. Why wouldn't the players allow the feeling of fun over winning spill over into the All-Star game itself? The rule that every team must be represented which made sense when there were eight teams per league induces the managers to use players more quickly in an effort to make sure each team is represented in the game. This becomes problematic when the number of teams has almost doubled (16 to 30). Often due to the roster constraints, managers select representatives from the weaker teams for their pitching staffs (e.g., Mike Williams this year). The manager then feels responsible to get that sole representative in to please the team's fans.
Can the All-Star game be re-focused back on winning? Sure. (Getting rid of interleague play would be a great step in that direction.) But there are so many fundamental things that would have to change about the game and the men who play it that no one is prepared to make. So it's an exhibition. So what? Does that detract from the beauty of Torii Hunter's catch or Bonds home run later. We should enjoy the game for what it is, a game. But it would be nice to have a winner in the end.