All-Star Thrills

Another thrilling Major League All-Star Game – this one effectively decided when Ryan Howard struck out on a Joe Nathan slider in the dirt – calls to mind the superiority of baseball’s version over every other sport’s. “Superiority” is too mild a term, implying a meaningful comparison to be made, when in fact baseball’s All-Star Game is in a different league, just as the Oscars cannot really be compared to the Grammys.

            Why is this, when these are all exhibitions, and baseball’s manner of selecting its players is, if anything, more flawed than the other leagues’? For the last seven years, there has been a consequence attached to the game’s outcome: the winning league is accorded home-field advantage in the World Series. But that is at best of hypothetical importance to the players.

            No, the reason has to do with the nature of the sport. First, baseball, while a team game (as opposed to tennis and golf), consists of a series of individual confrontations, principally pitcher against batter. It’s mano-a-mano, not teamo-a-teamo. The batter’s success depends solely on his own skills, not the protection he gets from his line or the assist from his winger. He can perform to the utmost of his ability without having ever practiced with those playing around him. For examples last night, think of Joe Mauer’s line double to left; of Carl Crawford’s catch over the fence; of Albert Pujols’ diving stops; of Mariano Rivera’s total control of the ninth inning.

            Notice, also, that several of those examples involve defense. In no other sport’s all-star game does defense play the same role it does in the regular season. A hockey all-star score tends to be 7-6, instead of the more common 2-1. Basketball scores are generally in the 125 range. The unwritten rules of those games are, we’ll let you score if you let us score and we’ll just see who can score the most. The violence that is so much a part of a football defense goes aloha, by general consent, at that sport’s Pro Bowl. By contrast, last night’s 4-3 win for the American League bore all the hallmarks of a regular season, or even postseason, game.

            Defense can’t take a vacation in baseball; the sport just can’t be played that way. Even if an outfielder weren’t hardwired to make every effort to catch a fly ball hit his way, the fact that he is standing out in rightfield all by himself is a guarantee of good faith. Everyone is watching, from his peers to a national television audience. While a hitter can’t be judged from one at-bat (viz., Ryan Howard), because the pitcher he faces is such a variable, a fielder’s reputation can be made or lost in one play. And one play may be all he gets.

            In short, everyone on the field is playing his hardest, on both offense and defense. If victory is beyond the control of any one player, every player has pride at stake, and that may be the biggest motivator of all. They call it an exhibition, and everyone lauds the experience of it all. But what you do matters. Great plays at baseball’s All-Star Game are recalled for years to come. No other sport can say that.