ALL-STAR EVOLUTION

All-Star game drops tricky decisions squarely in Dusty Baker’s hands

Jose Altuve will miss the All-Star Game, despite being named a starter. Composite image by Jack Brame.

It’s time to start naming two separate All-Star Game rosters.

One set of rosters for those who are voted into the game or gain entry based on their performance. And separate rosters for those who want to play.

This year, 14 players were named to the All-Star team only to pull out for reasons including injury (real), injury (dog ate my homework), or pitchers who aren’t available because they strategically threw over the weekend and teams don’t want them to burn innings in a meaningless made-for-TV exhibition game.

Today it seems like it’s enough of an honor to be named to the All-Star Game than to play in the All-Star Game. Sort of like car rental companies are good at taking Jerry Seinfeld’s reservation but not so good at holding the reservation. And isn’t holding the reservation – and actually playing in the All-Star Game – the most important part?

The absentees include starters Jose Altuve, Mike Trout and Jazz Chisholm Jr., and marquee stars like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Bryce Harper.

The Astros had five players named to the American League All-Star team: Altuve, Verlander, Framber Valdez, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Only two will see action tonight (Valdez and Tucker). Verlander pitched last Saturday so he’s off the roster. Alvarez is on the injured list. Altuve, well, let’s say he won’t have to endure those clown Dodgers fans booing him tonight.

Clayton Kershaw is the National League’s starting pitcher for the first time in his Cooperstown-bound career. His reason for taking the mound: “I was just trying to hang on a little longer for (my kids) to see it,” Kershaw said. “I think my daughter is 7 and my oldest son is 5.”

He thinks his daughter is 7?

Baseball’s All-Star Game is unique among America’s four major sports because it’s the only one that could affect whether a team makes the playoffs or not. It’s unlikely to happen, especially since Astros manager Dusty Baker is calling the shots for the American League, but say Astros lefty Valdez pitches two difficult innings and throws 60 pitches tonight. That would rule out Valdez from pitching Thursday when the Yankees visit Minute Maid Park for a rare doubleheader against the Astros. Those games could be critical in the final won-loss tally for home field advantage in the playoffs. If one team sweeps the double dip it could leave a psychological mark on the losing team.

Another quirk for baseball’s All-Star Game, it’s played on a Tuesday night instead of the weekend like football, hockey and basketball’s showcase.

Baseball’s Midsummer Classic comes the closest to looking like a real contest, though. Pitchers throw hard and batters are trying to hit home runs. Football and basketball’s All-Star Games are not taken seriously by the players, who don’t play defense and try their darnedest not to get injured. The scores of the last five NBA All-Star Games: 163-160, 170-150, 157-155, 178-164, and 196-173.

As for recent NFL Pro Bowls, middle school touch football games have more physical contact. The NFL used to play the Pro Bowl in sunny tropical Hawaii at the end of the season, in the dead of winter when most of America was shivering, and still couldn’t get many top players to say yes to playing. Now the game is played in Orlando and it’s an annual debate whether to pull the plug on the Pro Bowl.

All Star Games for all four sports have their gimmick side show attractions. The NBA has the dunk contest, the NFL and NHL have skills challenges and baseball has its Home Run Derby. The dunk contest used to feature Hall of Fame legends like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dominique Wilkins. Can you name the 2022 winner? It was Obi Toppin. The first time I heard that name, at the 2020 NBA Draft, I thought, did the Knicks just pick the conductor in Thomas the Tank Engine cartoons?

Monday night’s Home Run Derby took 2-1/2 hours for less than an hour of action. That’s so baseball. It was almost enough to wish Chris Berman were still calling the homers. Almost.

The players used to have good reason to win the All-Star Game. Between 2003 and 2017, the winning league got home field advantage in the World Series. Now the players’ only incentives are cash payouts for being named to the All-Star Game, with a little something extra for winners of the fan voting and members of the winning team. Many players have bonuses for making the All-Star Game in their contracts.

A new wrinkle for tonight’s game, if the score is tied after nine innings, there will be a mini home run contest with three players from each league getting three swings. They might as well have a hot dog eating contest or dance-off. At least that would be fun after what’ll probably be nearly a four-hour game.

Like the NFL Pro Bowl, baseball’s All-Star Game has taken a nosedive in importance. The All-Star Game used to be a summer highlight for sports fans. Between 1959 and 1962, baseball even staged two All-Star Games each year.

That’s how Hank Aaron was able to set the all-time record of being selected to 25 All-Star teams despite playing only 23 years. The once (really still) home run king shares the record for most All-Star Games played (24) with Willie Mays and Stan Musial.

Here’s a strange stat: Jeff Bagwell played 15 seasons with the Houston Astros and was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2017. He is the only player in history to have six consecutive seasons with 30 homers, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored and 100 walks. He’s the only first baseman with 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases. He’s an all-time great hitter and gifted fielder at first base.

Yet Bagwell made only four All-Star teams, only once as the starting first baseman. He was beat out for starting at first base by Greg Jefferies, Fred McGriff and Mark McGwire, none of whom is in the Hall of Fame.

So don’t put too much stock in tonight’s All-Star Game. It’s really just for fun.

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