It was 1933 and the nation was gearing up for the World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward, had a fantastic idea - a baseball game that fielded the best players from the American League and the best players from the National League. It would be a showcase of the best in baseball and an exhibition game to go down in history.
Since that first game 82 years ago, there have been 85 All-Star games played. Only one year was missed - 1945, because of World War II - and from 1959 to 1962 there were two ASGs played each season (yea, I don't get that either, but it happened). The NL leads the AL 43-40 (two ended in ties), although since 1988 the AL has won 20 of the 27 games played (1 tie in that time) and from 1997-2009 they dominated the ASG with 13 straight wins.
Over the years, the ASG went from being a showcase of the best in baseball with limited rosters, to the equivalent of a Little League game where everyone gets a little playing time with rosters that had expanded. The result has been players entering the game for shorter periods of time, especially pitchers who have been known to toss as little as a single inning in the ASG.
But to understand the why anyone cares about the All-Star Game we have to understand what happened in 2002. That year, in Milwaukee, the game ended after 11 innings when both teams ran out of pitchers. Yes, they ran out of pitchers in an 11 inning game. Bear in mind that the American League team had 10 pitchers on its roster and the National League team had 13 pitchers on its roster. You do the math.
With the AL scoring in the 8th to keep the game tied and Vicente Padilla and Feddy Garcia pitching scoreless 10th and 11th innings, both team declared they had no pitchers left. Commissioner Bud Selig met with both managers - Joe Torre and Bob Brenly - at the first base dugout to discuss the problem. The decision was that if the NL didn't score a run in the bottom of the 11th the game would end in a tie. So with a score of 7-7 and no MVP awarded, the 2002 All-Star Game ended with fans booing and throwing beer, chanting, "Let them play!", "Refund!" and "Bud must go!" (For the record, most Astros fans have been cheering that last one for years.) It was not baseball's finest moment and the media took MLB to task for how the game ended.
As a result of 2002 and with a desire to incentivize winning the ASG, Bud Selig went to work being Bud Selig, and a deal was struck between MLB and the players union; the team who won the Mid-Summer classic would be given home field advantage for the World Series. The deal was original inked for 2003-4, but was extended for both 2005 and 2006 and is now, the law of the baseball land. So, for fielding your best players, showing off their talent, while limiting play time so as to not wear out pitchers or risk injury, you can have World Series games 1,2,6 and 7 at home.
What does all of this have to do with the 2015 Houston Astros? Well, for the first time in a long time the Astros are contenders. With a week until the ASG, they lead the AL West by 2.5 games, have the 2nd best record in the AL, behind the Kansas City Royals and the 4th best record in all of baseball. The Astros have surprised just about everyone with a first half that has been downright fun to watch and has had more fans smiling at the conclusion of games than we saw in the last four full seasons of baseball in Houston.
When you're a contender, when you are racing for a pennant, when you are making a run at the World Series, which Houston is primed to do this year, should you care about the All-Star game? Are you invested in who wins so you can host games 1,2,6 and 7 should you arrive at the duel for baseball's top prize?
This week in the Boston Globe, Bob Ryan wrote an outstanding piece entitled "Whatever happened to the All-Star Game?" You should go read it. Bob's a smart guy. My favorite quote from his piece - he's discussing that game in 2002 when the teams ran out of pitchers and the game ended in a tie and with disappointed fans -
In the Astros' only World Series appearance in 2005, the American League (the Astros were still in the National League at this time) had home field advantage thanks to a win at the All-Star Game, but it didn't take 4 home games for the Chicago White Sox to sweep the Astros. So did it really matter who won the Mid-Summer Classic that year? What does the home field advantage rule matter if your team can't get to games 6 and 7?
I say the outcome of baseball's summer showcase shouldn't matter any year. I believe no team should truly care about the All-Star Game. I say, play your best baseball each and every game for 162 games and let the chips fall where they will. Who cares.
Of course, it's easier to say that when the team you cheer for is in the All-Star Game-dominating American League.
Regardless, the ASG is a showcase, not a real contest of baseball. If it was a real contest, the fans wouldn't get a say in who played. If it was a real contest starters would play the whole game and starting pitchers would throw 6+ innings if they were hot that night. But that's not the way this game is played.
I don't care about the All-Star Game and the Houston Astros shouldn't either.
Don't get me wrong, I'll watch the ASG. I'll watch the Home Run Derby. I'll read about the celebrity softball game. I'll cheer for Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel during the game. I'll watch it as I do any other baseball game whose outcome doesn't truly affect me. I'll enjoy it, because it's baseball celebrating baseball and what's more American than that? I love that MLB shows off for a few days in July each year. There's no competition for attention from the NFL or NBA or NHL. In July, baseball reigns supreme so why not showcase the best talent out there with a game that's all about fun and not so much about contest.
If you haven't guessed, I'm in the camp who believes the ASG shouldn't be the determining factor for World Series home advantage, but no one's asked me. Hey Rob, Rob Manfred? Bud's gone now, can we end this charade? Can we make the Mid-Summer Classic about loving baseball and nothing more? Pretty please?
Hmpf. No answer. Well, it seems we'll all gather around our televisions on July 15th and watch a game that isn't like any other game and was never meant to be anything more than a showcase of great baseball players. We'll cheer and jeer. We'll wish we saw more of some players and less of others. We'll not be surprised if the American League wins again, but also not care if the National League manages to eek this one out. Someone out there cares whether the AL wins or the NL wins, but for the love of the game, it's not me and I hope it's not the Astros, contenders or not.