State of the game

With all of the problems of sports in general and baseball in particular -- let alone those of the entire dimly cockeyed, stuck in a ditch, hopelessly atwitter nation for that matter -- you'd think we'd have better things to think about and wrangle over than the decline, fall, creeping banality and, utter irrelevance of a tired old and thoroughly meaningless exhibition game.

But nice things die hard and tradition matters deeply especially, in the realm of baseball where a seamless web of nostalgia has long and lovingly embraced the game from the moment Alexander Cartwright came down from the mountain with the rules and regulations of a new version of "Rounders" graven in stone. It was thereby inevitable that it would be baseball that would produce and annually feature what would become dearly regarded in the national lore and legendry as "the dream game."

Only those few of us who were at the height of our game back in the summer of 1933 can appreciate how that spell was instantly conjured when Arch Ward, a humble Chicago sportswriter, cooked up the idea and it was only intended to be a one-time deal. Ward proposed it simply to serve as a sidebar of Chicago's ambitious "Century of Progress" exhibition, a sort of mini-world's fair being held that summer in defiance of the overwhelming black mood being cast globally as the Great Depression was realizing its abject depths.

Overnight Ward's pipe-dream took off, as one and all also saw in it the potential for a huge boost in the public morale as well as a vehicle for inspiring precious charitable works. When the first "classic" proved a sensation -- with Babe Ruth delivering one of his patented mighty blows to win it for the American League -- the effect was to instantly institutionalize the event making it an annual festival, second in meaning as a national summer occasion only to July 4th itself. Such then was the power and majesty of Baseball in our culture.

But that was then and now is now and much has changed in said culture and so have we. So have the men who play a kid's game for their immense and boundless profit, and if somewhere along the line perspectives have wandered and values have faded it is just the way of things and maybe that's how it should be left, with no hard feelings and no regrets. Only it isn't that simple. It never is.

Actually, the Baseball All-Star game has been losing its magic in dribs and drabs for about 40 years now. You really have to go back to about the '60s to recall it being compelling theatre; by which I mean something that stopped us in our tracks, fired our imagination, and we dared not miss.

In recent years you have had the odd special moment, now and again. That was significantly the case in 1999 at Fenway Park when the baseball world staged a delightfully impromptu farewell to an old and mellow Ted Williams and there was a bit of a reprise nine years later when the big night's special feature was a sentimental wallowing in the impending doom of Yankee Stadium. They were quintessential baseball moments. As the impish Bill Veeck used to delight in observing, baseball has always found a certain charm in necrophilia. Absent such curious and stray garnishes the game on the field has increasingly bombed.

Culminating in this year's abomination in Arizona -- and it was a painfully tedious and lackluster drill -- delivered with neither passion nor purpose as a ridiculous 60 different players paraded in and out of the two lineups, much as they might do batting practice at spring training. Record low TV ratings affirmed what Abe Lincoln so wisely observed, namely that you simply can't fool all the people all the time.

What to do about this weak parody? All the heavyweights in the business are weighing in, with the most profound and succinct advice I think coming from Jim Litke, lead columnist for the Associated Press, who urges, "End it!" And he adds, "Would anyone other than Bud Selig notice? Or care?"

The sitting Czar always makes a fashionable target when complaints about the game are aired and Lord knows this one is especially and richly deserving. Selig is dead-wrong in allowing the outcome of the all-star game to determine who gets home-field advantage in the World Series. That issue is much too important to be decided by what amounts to a whim. It makes a potentially pivotal consideration the hostage of a contrivance. Selig knows he's wrong, but presumably has no way out and lacks the courage to admit it.

Otherwise there isn't much he could have done to prevent the erstwhile ''mid-summer night's dream'' from deteriorating into an embarrassing nightmare. Adverse conditions were fairly cemented well before his watch. The competitive edge players formerly brought to the moment, and that delicious animosity the two leagues once had for one another, eroded long ago. They are all buddies now bonded by an interlocking network of agents who may have more influence than Selig himself. Clearly, the players don't really care, a reality clearly affirmed by this year's rage of no-shows and cop-outs. Interleague play, expansion, and the greatly increased movement of players are other factors at play.

An all-time all-star, old pal Teddie "Ballgame" Williams would be properly appalled. Ever the eccentric, Williams always regarded these gigs as his most important and ranked his memorable heroics in the '41 and '46 classics as his biggest thrills. To some of us, that still seems rather strange, because as important as they once may have seemed to some all-star games were never more than mere exhibitions. Hardly fabled for his aggressive defense, Ted ran into a wall in the 1950 edition, broke his elbow, and missed the next two months as his team with its customary flair for futility chased the Yankees hopelessly, finishing just four games out. If Ted ever questioned the wisdom of his misplaced zeal that summer, it was never recorded.

Face it. Under the stewardship of Selig, the aegis of the Fox Television Network, and the influence of that cult of Big Money that's created the generation of breezy plutocrats who play the game today, the once glorious all-star game has became a big, noisy, vacuous, happy, frat-house party having little meaning and less raison d'etre. I agree with Jim Litke. The time has come. Put the bloody thing out of its misery.

Greatly up-staging the game this year was the silly home run contest the night before. When a weak sideshow that essentially trivializes the game becomes the main attraction, it's time to run up the white flag, Boys. The party is over.

Of course, all the all-star games in all the leagues have lost their value and were it not for network television's acute need to fill vast programming voids with pure junk, they would have become extinct long ago.

None of the all star games work anymore. The NFL's version, never much to brag about even when it involved the gimmick of matching college all-stars against the sitting champion, has been reduced in recent years to a farce; virtually a touch football game of the sort they used to play at the Kennedy Compound. That it has been entirely ignored is altogether fitting. What the NHL now offers -- a dumb three-hour shootout -- is equally embarrassing. Have you no pride, Gary Bettman? There was a day when the NBA made an effort. These days their stellar productions look borrowed from a playground.

It's over. Gone! Done! Exeunt! As Gertie Stein may have noted, there is no more "there", there. Nothing lasts forever. But in baseball alone, once upon a time, these games did have rare meaning. Such a loss is always poignant.

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