Baseball’s All-Star Game began losing ground in 1959, the first of four straight seasons in which two games were played. The extra revenue was supposed to benefit the players’ pension fund, but a game that’s played simply to raise money is an exhibition game. The poor fans had thought up till then that the All-Star Game was played to establish league supremacy, or settle bragging rights, or something. It wasn’t an exhibition for the only reason that any sporting event isn’t an exhibition — because in the heads of the public, and the players, it mattered.
Once it stopped mattering, the game was a mere showcase, the rival managers less concerned about winning than about making sure every celebrity on their rosters got to play. Who cared about that? To stir up interest again among the fans and players, it was decreed in 2003 that home field advantage in that fall’s World Series would go to whichever league won the All-Star Game. Defeat would have repercussions. The change has helped.
But to truly be an occasion, the game must be played with a sense of one. Tuesday night the National League rallied from a 5-2 deficit with two outs in the ninth, scoring twice and loading the bases. It was Aaron Rowand’s turn to bat, but Albert Pujols was sitting, unused yet, on the bench. Manager Tony La Russa sent Rowand up to bat and he flied to right to end the game. The baseball forum I follow in Saint Louis exploded, and I’d estimate that 80 percent of the fans filing there have the same message for La Russa: “Thanks for the memories, Tony. Please leave town.”
The game deserved the fearsome Pujols striding to the plate with everything on the line. An all-star game that isn’t about that kind of drama isn’t about anything at all. It would hardly have mattered a day or two later whether Pujols homered or struck out. The point is he would have been standing there, waving his bat, while across the stadium in San Francisco and in taverns across America, a hush fell. What would he do?
The rap against La Russa in Saint Louis is that he’s in love with his own mind and often outsmarts himself. La Russa said he needed Pujols on his bench in case the game went into extra innings. One — the game wasn’t going into extra innings; either a hit or an out would end it. Two — there are times to live in the moment. If La Russa had been the other manager that day in Mudville, he’d have seen Blake safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third and told his pitcher to throw the Mudville slugger four wide ones. Casey wouldn’t have struck out, and today no one would know his name.