All-Star Game More Show than Go
By John Gilbert
The Major League All-Star game continues to endure as a fantastic midseason extravaganza, and this summer with the game at Target Field in Minneapolis we’ll all get the chance to see, up close and personal, just how much is extravaganza and how much is actual baseball.
My particular love affair with the “midsummer classic” dates back a few years. Quite a few. Back to the days when the game and winning it were the most important things, even toppling the upsurge of public relations gimmicks and add-ons. Near as I can figure, the big change came in the late 1970s — somewhere around 1979 or 1980, I’d guess. There’s no real way to “look it up,” despite all the voluminous records that have been hauled along by baseball as it has evolved to the modern era.
What happened, I’m afraid, is the expansion of baseball led to a lot of teams that remain comparative unknowns, populated by players who are less-known. That’s not exactly fair, but it’s just a matter that an eager 10-year-old who might have memorized every batting order in the 1950s or ’60s has no chance of figuring out all those players on all the teams of today’s MLB.
We see the Minnesota Twins go out to Seattle and get stifled by a pitcher named Hisashi Iwakuma. Another one of those recently imported Japanese stars who come over and do very well in our Major League setting. Not all of them do, but Iwakuma certainly did. He had a 2-hit shutout for most of seven innings, and after giving up a single and double, he responded by getting a ground out, then striking out Eduardo Nunez to retire the side and end the seventh. That was his 10th strikeout, to go along with no walks, and he left the game at that point, easing to a 2-0 victory, thanks to a pair of solo home runs the Mariners got against Kevin Correia — who pitched another of those “just well enough to lose” performances. Seattle closer, a guy named Fernando Rodney, wearing his flat-brimmed hat at a jaunty 20-degree angle, as though he might be headed for a hip-hop concert right after the game, pitched a devastating ninth to close the deal.
Here’s the deal. I admit to not paying as close attention as I perhaps should to the West Coast teams, and I attribute it to the vast expansion of the Major Leagues, but I couldn’t recall hearing Hisashi Iwakuma’s name before! Then we’re informed that the seven shutout innings extended Hisashi Iwakuma’s current streak against the Twins to 36-plus innings without allowing an earned run. Incredible. I’m embarrassed.
Now we get around to the All-Star game coming up at Target Field. The Twins have two all-stars selected, catcher Kurt Suzuki and closer Glen Perkins. Those boosters and media types say both deserve to be there. Realistically, maybe neither does. But the time is long gone when the selected eight best players are named, and then a few spares who might play an inning or two, plus enough pitchers to back up a staff of three or four prominent starters.
In more recent years, they select a player from every team, which results in enough of a bench that about three players are available for every position. Managers have decided to try to get everybody into the game, which means a starting all-star might bat once, maybe twice.
Also, pitchers may pitch an inning, or part of an inning, and go back to the bench, because there are so many pitchers on the All-Star staff that managers could use two per inning. So nobody gets slighted, but also nobody gets a chance to look star-like.
I arbitrarily put the transition time at about 1979, because I did look up the 1978 All-Star game, and American League Stars Rod Carew, Jim Rice, George Brett, and Freddy Lynn all got up four times. The National League Stars Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Steve Garvey, Larry Bowa and others also played most or all of the game. Reggie Smith, who probably should have been a starter, entered as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher and stayed in for three at-bats in right field.
In 1980, by comparison, 19 American League players got at-bats, and 20 NLers. The transition had been made that if you were going to go to the trouble of naming a token player from each team, then the managers might as well make sure to get them all in the game. Interesting, because before 1979, the focus was on letting the top stars play most of the game, instead of making a token start and then retiring to the dugout.
But after 1979, it was the reverse. Because of that, it has become nice to be named an All-Star, but it is a far less-significant achievement when you’re only going to wave to the crowd, swing the bat once, and go sit down.
If you have some time, go back and check out some of the records of All-Star Games past. Long past. If you dropped a cool thousand for a couple of tickets this year, because you want to see certain player — a Derek Jeter, or Miguel Cabrera — look fast, because after he gets an at-bat, chances are excellent he’ll be replaced.
Now let’s go back to 1954. A great year, because I was a young kid and a huge Cleveland indians fan. The Indians were on their way to winning 111 games, and the Indians and the New York Yankees dominated the A.L. All-Star team. Cleveland’s Al Rosen was at third base and Bobby Avila was at second, Larry Doby was in the outfield, and the Indians had some subs and some pitchers as well. The Yankees had Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer in the lineup, and Whitey Ford was the starting pitcher.
Go back to a box score of that game. It was crazy, and the A.L. won 11-9, but I remember it because Rosen was one of my favorites and he went 3-for-4 in the game, socking two home runs and drawing a walk as well. He hit a three-run home run in the third inning off Robin Roberts, driving in Avila and Minnie Minoso, and Ray Boone homered for a 4-0 American lead. A few innings later, the N.L. had taken a 7-5 lead, and Rosen hit a two-run homer. Doby also homered.
But here’s the point: Avila was 3-3, Minoso 2-4, Mantle 2-5, Berra 2-4, Rosen 3-4, Boone 1-4, Bauer 1-2, shortstop Chico Carrasquel 1-5, and Ford got up once while pitching three innings, before someone named Ted Williams pinch-hit for him. Bob Porterfield also pitched three innings for the Americans.
The National side showed similar staying power, and fans all across the country got a dose of the true all-stars of both leagues, because it wasn’t just a token appearance.
The year before, 1953, the game was similar, though lower scoring. The Americans had Billy Pierce go three innings, Allie Reynolds two, Mike Garcia 2, and Satchel Paige one. A similar lineup stayed together to bat three or four times each. The Nationals had Peewee Reese, Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial, Ted Kluszewski, Roy Campanella, Eddie Mathews, Gus Bell, Enos Slaughter…all getting up three or four times. Duke Snider, Ralph Kiner, Richie Ashburn and Jackie Robinson were used as pinch hitters, and Roberts, Warren Spahn and Curt Simmons worked the first seven innings.
That trend of the starters getting a thorough workout in the All-Star game continued on up through 1978, though the cast had changed thoroughly. Rod Carew, George Brett, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn led the AL, while Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Steve Garvey, Ted Simons, and Larry Bowa led the National.
There is no question that the big stars of that pre-1978 era were bigger stars than the players today, but that might be because the All-Stars got to be stars, and weren’t just taken out after token starting assignments.
We could go back to that, by limiting the number of players selected. The fans started voting for the starters back in the late 1970s, and that also contributed to ballot-stuffing that made popularity from large population centers more viable as starters than true all-stars. Let’s go back to having the managers vote for the starters, without being able to vote for their own players, and also for one reserve at each position. The managers name four starting pitchers, three relievers and a closer or two. And that’s it.
No more demands that everyone get in for an at-bat and a couple of innings of playing time. The starters will play minimum six innings and maybe all nine. Pitchers can be limited to three innings, fine.
It would make the All-Star Game a true spectacle once again, a midsummer night’s dream, instead of a gathering of the wealthiest players who get equal billing and equal playing time, with far less intensity about trying to win the game. That is simply not the American way.
Baseball and softball thrive on a much smaller scale. While the Major League All-Star Game is the hot topic in Minnesota for the time being, and I drove out to Wade Stadium in Duluth to watch the Duluth Huskies play the Willmar Stingers. After we parked, we noticed the softball lights were on over the adjacent fields. There we saw a couple games of the region’s Under-16 girls fast-pitch teams, half a dozen or more. They’d play two games, then a couple teams would sit out while others played, then they’d return and play some more. It seemed every team got in at least two games. The next night it would be Under-14, then U-18 — the high school veterans.
Every week, girls softball in the area gets to improve more and more. It’s worth the effort and the organization, and after we watched the Huskies rally to gain the lead, they fell 6-4 that night to Willmar. We had to pause and realize that the Northwoods League game was very entertaining, but so were the girls U-16 softball games!