The All-Star Game Is the Worst Part of All-Star Week

Of all those 1970s disaster movies, the worst one for me has always been The Swarm. Featuring an impressive cast, with names such as Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Chamberlain, José Ferrer, and Olivia de Havilland (along with many others), the film’s stars muddle their way through roughly three uninteresting hours, all the time looking like they had accidentally wandered in from other, more interesting movies. Every star gets his or her own cameo, and typically a random death, like when the bees destroy a helicopter or when the bees derail a train or when Henry Fonda decides to test a vaccine by giving himself a large dose of it and crossing his fingers. I’ll leave any connection between that last misfortune and the Orioles’ most recent offseason to the reader.

Despite the ambition of the film, what it lacked was any sense of fun, any sense of purpose for having assembled such talent. And that’s why it works as an able metaphor for the All-Star Game. There are a lot of great things about All-Star Week. The Futures Game gives the wider public what is, for many, their first look at players like Hunter Greene or Peter Alonso. As used to be the case for the All-Star Game, many of the players involved in the Futures Game are facing off each other for the first time — in this case, thanks to rosters constructed of players from across the minor leagues. That kind of unfamiliarity is rare to see at the major-league level, both because of free agency and also interleague play, the latter of which is now a daily occurrence. But my colleague Travis Sawchik has more on that!

The Home Run Derby is nonsense in a lot of ways, but it’s fun, glorious nonsense, which takes one important aspect of baseball (hitting for power), fills it with helium and cotton candy, and then sends it on its merry way. While cotton candy oughtn’t be the foundation of a every meal, it’s fine for an occasional celebration. As Jay Jaffe noted this morning, last night’s Home Run Derby captured this atmosphere perfectly. The participants were all clearly having a blast and that kind of feeling is infectious. Watching Bryce Harper come from behind in the finals, smacking nine consecutive homers to pass Kyle Schwarber is one of those Big Moments© you remember 10 years later, the kind of thing that makes watching baseball a joyful experience.

The All-Star Game itself, on the other hand, always strikes me these days as a joyless romp that resembles a game of baseball but delivers all the pleasure of boiled celery. Major League Baseball tried a while ago to inject some intensity into the whole affair with its This Time it Counts rule change, shoehorning in home-field advantage for Game Seven of the World Series, a connection that makes little sense. It didn’t really make the game more important, though. Rather, it connected something of consequence — namely, the final game of a World Series — to an unrelated event that could be enjoyed without any greater meaning. If your family isn’t enthralled by playing The Game of Life for a contrived family night, announcing that only the winner gets to go to college may make it more of a high-stakes event, but it makes it more of a creepy thing your kids will be telling a doctor in 20 years rather than a fun evening full of lighthearted japes.

So, what do we do with the All-Star Game? There are two paths you can go, the Light Tweak or the Major Surgery. Since I’m not the Generalissimo of Major League Baseball, think of these as the starting points for some discussion rather than some declaration that could actually be implemented.

The Light Tweak

If you want the All-Star Game to be played like a game, then it requires some kind of stakes — and directly so, not just some unknown possible future advantage for one of the 15 teams represented by each side. Pride alone isn’t sufficient, either: there are simply National League players or American League players, and with baseball eliminating the league offices, there really aren’t even different leagues. Other than the use of the designated hitter in one of them, the AL and NL are more or less accounting fictions.

What I’m talking about is money. If MLB wants really the game to remain a marquee event, they should treat it as a loss leader, an expensive event to give national coverage to all the game’s brightest stars. Just $20,000 per player for a win? Add a zero to that. Or two. Tighten the roster to 15 a side, to ensure that the game is played in a manner that at least reflects how an actual game of baseball should be played. And ditch the “every team gets an All-Star” practice; the game should be about highlighting the game’s very best. Everybody getting an at-bat ought to be for tee-ball, not for the All-Star Game.

My favorite All-Star Game was the 1989 edition, and it wasn’t even from the game itself, but from Bo Jackson’s moments in the game, especially when he crushed a leadoff homer against Rick Reuschel, immediately after making a long catch of a Pedro Guerrero fly ball look almost casual due to his Tecmo Bowl-esque speed. And then Wade Boggs hit a homer, too. Bo Jackson was only very briefly a star-level player, but he had that ineffable star quality that made you think he could do literally anything by sheer force of will (which is why those Bo Knows commercials worked). Boggs, of course, was “only” one of the best third basemen in history.

Those are the moments that baseball needs to create. Mike Trout is the best player of this generation, quite literally the 21st-century equivalent of Willie Mays, and he’s almost an unknown in the wider culture. You fight against MLB being a more regionalized game by treating the game as a platform for the Trouts and the Bettses, not to get token cameos for Salvador Perez purely for the laundry he’s wearing (in 2018 at least) or J.A. Happ.

The Major Surgery

Maybe the All-Star Game is simply an anachronism that’s not worth fixing. If you can’t make the All-Star Game good, then at least come up with new “events” that are just as goofy and just as much fun as the Home Run Derby. Yeah, teams would freak out about hamstring injuries, but as long as we’re indulging in a bit of skylarking, who wouldn’t want to see Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon settle, for once and all, who is faster in an MLB footrace? There are a lot of baseball skills, like precision hitting or arm strength or throwing accuracy, that would be a tremendous amount of fun.

Again, teams would freak out about injuries, but if the NHL can figure out the NHL Skills Competition, I have to think MLB could come up with something amenable to most parties if they put a little effort into it. Even silly things like a Bat Flip competition, with scores for artistic merit. Maybe you can get Trackman to do something about bat rotational velocity on a bat flip.

In a lot of ways, MLB’s general conservatism is one of the game’s strengths. While there are a lot more Three True Outcomes in 2018 than 1968 or 1918, the game is played more or less the same way it always has been. And while there are some differences (absence of spitballs, different-sized mound, designated hitter, and so on), someone back then watching a game today would have little trouble understanding what was going on. But for something like a fun exhibition, I’d love to see MLB throw that conservatism in the dustbin and create an All-Star Game that is a worthy part of All-Star Week.

It’s certainly better than letting the bees win.

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Brian Reinhart
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The Bat Flip competition should be an exhibition match against the winners of (also to-be-implemented) Nippon and Korean Bat Flip competitions.