x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Baseball's All-Star games matchless

On Tuesday in St Louis, MLB will hold the 80th annual All-Star Game, and though it is an exhibition by definition, the contest has more meaning than all the other All-Star games put together.

Other sports have All-Star games; baseball has an event. On Tuesday in St Louis, Major League Baseball will hold the 80th annual All-Star Game, and though it is an exhibition by definition, the contest has more meaning than all the other All-Star games put together. The NFL hold the Pro Bowl the week after the Super Bowl each year, and the affair is predictably anti-climactic. For players from non-play-off teams, it is their first participation in American football in more than a month - and it shows. Even with Hawaii as the traditional backdrop, it is difficult to lure players to play.

Every year, players find new injuries and excuses to avoid taking part. The NHL All-Star Game barely resembles an actual ice hockey game. There is next-to-no physical contact, and while the event serves as a nice showcase for offensive skills and speed, it is the equivalent of a backyard hockey game - minus the intensity. Similarly, the NBA game serves to highlight spectacular one-on-one moves, but defence and teamwork are almost non-existent.

Baseball's All-Star game, by contrast, has the most history and tradition and resonates far more deeply with the game's fans, who annually turn out in record numbers to vote for the starting line-ups. In recent years, some tweaking has taken place to improve the game. Managers, coaches and players now have a say in roster composition, ensuring that the teams are a truer representation of the game's best.

Less successful, in the minds of many, is the notion that the winning league also win home field advantage for the World Series. While it may heighten awareness and interest in the game, it also sends a mixed message. The game is, at bottom, an exhibition, and yet its outcome determines an advantage for one league over the other at the most important time of the year. A generation ago, before interleague play, free agency and the advent of cable television, baseball's All-Star game was the lone chance during the season to watch stars from both leagues gather on the same field.

Before players could easily move from team to team and league to league, players often spent their entire careers in the same league, forging an identity. Now, players drift from one league to the other and back again, so some identity is lost. Nonetheless, beyond World Series home field, there is pride at stake, and the results often reflect the cyclical nature of the game. When the National League (NL) established their dominance in the 1960s - chiefly as a result of a willingness to more quickly integrate black and Latino players - it was reflected in the games outcomes, as the NL won 19 of the 20 games from 1963-82. More recently, the American League have proven their superiority by going undefeated (11-0-1) over the last dozen years.

It is doubtful that baseball will ever witness the sight of a baserunner running over a catcher, the way Pete Rose did to Ray Fosse in 1970. But that does not make the game any less appealing. Over the last decade, baseball has shrewdly built other events around the game itself, from a fan festival to the popular Home Run Derby the night before the game to showcase top prospects two days before. In short, the All-Star game is a three-day celebration of the game, serving as both an intermission to the season and a reminder of its history.

The game regularly draws the highest TV rating for a summer sporting event and fans still keenly anticipate its arrival. And, at the end of the day, what other sport can say that about its mid-season showcase? smcadam@thenational.ae