Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2021

A Less Than Classic Midsummer Classic

A NOTE TO READERS:  There will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday.  Thanks for your support!

It is worth remembering that MLB’s All-Star Game has always been about marketing.  The first one, in 1933, was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.  Ward, who had worked as Knute Rockne’s publicity director while at Notre Dame and founded the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament in 1928, used his extensive contacts in the sports world as well as the influence of one of the largest newspapers in the country to convince baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that an exhibition between the top players of the American and National Leagues would be a good showcase for the sport.  Of course, staging a contest featuring the most popular stars of what was then unquestionably the national pastime at Comiskey Park while the Chicago World’s Fair was in progress just happened to also be an enormous boon for the international exposition celebrating the centennial of the Windy City’s incorporation.

Not that Landis needed all that much convincing.  When Chicago mayor Edward Kelly approached the Tribune about sponsoring a major sports event, Ward came up with the idea of the All-Star Game, with fans selecting the starting lineups on ballots printed in 55 newspapers throughout the country, as a one-time event.  But in the wake of the AL’s 4-2 victory, in which Babe Ruth’s 3rd inning two-run homer to right was the decisive blow, Landis declared “That’s a grand show, and it should be continued.”  With a lifetime contract and unfettered authority, Landis generally got what he wanted, and so the Midsummer Classic became the longest season’s waystation, forever more dividing baseball’s calendar in two, even if the halves are never truly equal if measured by the number of games.

Arch Ward would surely marvel at the multi-day spectacle that his one-off exhibition game has become.  The Home Run Derby was added in 1985.  Held the night before the main event, the Derby has grown into appointment viewing for many fans, thanks largely to relentless promotion by MLB and ESPN.  This year’s Derby garnered nearly as many viewers as the All-Star game itself.  The All-Star Futures Game, showcasing promising minor leaguers, and a softball game featuring retired players and assorted celebrities, have both been part of the festivities for roughly twenty years.  This year MLB also moved its multi-day amateur draft, historically held in early June, to coincide with the All-Star festivities.

The marketing folks at MLB’s Gotham headquarters churn out press releases proclaiming that any city so blessed as to be able to host a Midsummer Classic sees benefits on the order of $100 million.  That’s an impressive number, but one with the ring of a nice round total conjured up by someone with a degree in communications rather than economics.  No matter how many ancillary contests are added, the focus of attention is still a meaningless exhibition game.  No title is at stake.  The teams are only teams for an evening – no youngster ever became a lifelong fan of the American League All-Star squad.  And while the game has always been a showcase for individuals, neither a batter’s home run nor a pitcher’s strikeout nor a runner’s stolen base count toward a player’s season or career statistics.  MLB has even had the good sense to drop former commissioner Bud Selig’s silly idea that for a time awarded home field advantage for each fall’s World Series to the team representing the league that won that year’s All-Star Game. 

All of which is to say that even with multiple component parts stretched over several days, the Midsummer Classic has limited appeal as a destination for fans who aren’t local.  Yet for MLB’s claim to be accurate, every single person who crammed into Coors Field for Tuesday night’s game needed to contribute nearly $2,000 in new dollars to the Denver economy during their stay.  Did some do that in spending on hotels, meals and entertainment over a long weekend visit to Colorado?  Absolutely.  But such largess was more likely the exception than the rule, and the required spending by those visitors increases for each Rockies fan who scored tickets to the game, drove from their home in Aurora, bought a hot dog and a beer while watching the AL win for the eighth straight time, and then drove home. 

Whatever the local impact, one can count on MLB to squeeze every possible marketing dollar out of the All-Star contest for itself.  This year, for the first time since 1933, that effort included the players’ uniforms.  When Judge Landis attended that inaugural game at Comiskey Park, he saw the National League team dressed in uniforms designed for the occasion.  Grey with “National League” on the front and a number on the back in blue, and topped by a blue cap with a white “NL,” the special outfits were a memento the players were allowed to keep.  But the American League team members each wore the regular home uniform of his respective team, and by the second game in 1934 that was the style decision that won out. 

Special All-Star uniforms have been made for many years – with replica jerseys of course offered for sale – but they’ve been worn by players only during batting practice and, occasionally, for the Home Run Derby.  But this year MLB abandoned the practice of individual team uniforms in favor of contrasting NL and AL outfits that looked like leftovers from a slow-pitch softball league, or perhaps something found in the closeout section of the pajama department at a discount department store.  The uniforms were universally panned, with the irrepressible Richard Staff, who writes about the Mets for SB Nation, tweeting that he was impressed MLB chose to honor Mike Trout, absent because of injury, with NL uniforms that were white and bland.

Perhaps the prospect of having to don such hideous uniforms is what kept so many players away.  Fourteen All-Stars chose to pass on the opportunity to join their fellow elite players in Denver, the second highest number ever.  Absences due to injury always happen.  That’s both understandable and regrettable, so players like Trout and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna get a pass.  But all four Houston Astros named as All-Stars found better things to do than hear the certain boos that would have rained down on them from fans who haven’t forgotten that team’s cheating-stained championship, and other players followed Mets ace Jacob deGrom in just saying “no thanks.” 

For fans, the absences turned the later innings of the game into a test of identifying rather than celebrating players, a task made more difficult by the mandatory pajamas.  The contest did manage to redeem itself in the end by celebrating the Great Game’s international scope.  The winning pitcher was from Japan, the closer who earned the save was from Australia, and the MVP was a Dominican born in Canada, all playing a quintessentially American game with the country’s greatest mountain range in the distance.  The hurler who got the W was Shohei Ohtani, the electrifying two-way star who also served as the AL’s designated hitter in the starting lineup.  Much was made of Ohtani starting at two positions, though if player participation this year turns into a trend, he may soon find himself having to play a few more.  Hopefully by then, he’ll be able to do so wearing an Angels uniform.

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