National League's Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers talks to commissioner Bud Selig after the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, July 12, 2011, in Phoenix. The National League won 5-1. Fielder was named the game's MVP.
Absent from the endless discussions about how to improve baseball's All-Star game was the one that would solve all the problems immediately.
Seriously. Would anyone other than Bud Selig notice? Or care? And just imagine if the idea gets traction across the sports spectrum. If the pro leagues really want to do something for fans, other than pick their pockets, keep the breaks in midseason and have the players perform community service — e.g., stage sports clinics in their hometowns.
For one thing, they might be better attended than the All-Star game. Almost a fifth of the players named to baseball's two squads had already voted no with their feet, electing to park them somewhere besides Phoenix on Tuesday night, rendering the National League's 5-1 win an even more meaningless exercise than usual. And the problem wasn't just a lack of quantity, but quality.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter might be the face of baseball, but his body was already in R&R mode. He sneaked off to Florida with girlfriend Minka Kelly, enraging all those commentators who exhausted their store of superlatives praising him over the weekend, the TV executives at FOX who spent hours dreaming up all those promotional tie-ins, and who knows how many of the 4 million who penciled Jeter into the AL starting lineup.
Surprisingly, the voice of reason in the debate turned out to be the commissioner.
"There isn't a player that I'm more proud of in the last 15 years than Derek Jeter. He's played the game the way it should be played. He's an even greater human being off the field," Selig said. "I think I would have made the same decision that Derek Jeter had."
Of course, this was the same commissioner who called off the 2002 game — and in his home park in Milwaukee, no less — when both teams ran out of relief pitchers after 11 innings in a tie game. Convinced that raising the stakes would prevent future defections and convince the All-Star managers to hold back enough players to prevent a repeat, Selig then hammered out an agreement with the players' union the following year to award home-field advantage for the World Series to whichever league won the game.
Even so, the list of AL starting pitchers who, like Jeter, passed up a chance to appear — either because they were injured, resting or worked a regular-season game Sunday — read like the first round of everybody's fantasy draft: Detroit's Justin Verlander, the Yankees' CC Sabathia and closer Mariano Rivera, Seattle's Felix Hernandez, Tampa Bay's James Shields and Boston's Jon Lester.
Lester's Red Sox teammate, Josh Beckett, scheduled as the second AL pitcher, then bowed out during warmups because of a sore knee. Beckett said afterward he would have pitched through the discomfort had it been a regular-season game. Some incentive home field for the World Series turned out to be.
Predictably, the Nationals rode superior pitching and some timely hits to win. They were also better at pretending that it meant something.
"That was part of the message, how important it was for us, and how important the game was: Do it again for the National League champion," said San Francisco and NL manager Bruce Bochy, whose team was awarded home-field advantage in last year's series.
The only sign that it mattered to the NL players during the game was a goofy slide by the Padres' Heath Bell. He sprinted out of the bullpen and ripped up a piece of turf the size of a toupee just short of the mound.
"I told some guys I wanted to have fun this All-Star game and needed some ideas, so guys back home kind of said slide on the mound," Bell recalled. "Bochy said before the game that this really counts, so I thought I was not going to do it, but then we were up by four runs."
Even the ballplayers conceded that as far as suspense, that was pretty much it.
"I don't know if I'd make it. I think I'd slip, ankle, flip, next thing you know," Giants closer Brian Wilson said, "I can't pitch."
The All-Star game wasn't always like that. Guys used to treat the game as an honor instead of worrying about getting hurt. The highlights from past games running wall to wall on ESPN proved that. How many times did you see the Pete Rose collision at the plate with Ray Fosse in the 1970 contest? And what are the chances you'll ever see anything like it in an All-Star game again?
The guess here is never. There's no need to romanticize the good old days. We like to think the players competed for pride, but even back then, it was about money. The problem, though, is that there's so much more money on the line these days that the likelihood of any player in any All-Star game would step outside his comfort zone is practically nil.
And it's not just baseball. The NFL's Pro Bowl is a glorified flag-football contest and even the NBA and NHL versions, which are entertaining enough as displays of offensive firepower, offer so little defense and intensity that calling them honest games stretches the truth.
So go ahead, Bud, make a statement. Either make attendance at the game mandatory, or just make the midsummer break a vacation. If it ever deserved the label "classic," it's anything but that these days.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke