MIAMI — As I sat in the stands of Marlins Park watching the MLB All-Star Home Run Derby, I felt like I was at a combination of my favorite band’s best concert, the most fun birthday party my parents ever threw me when I was a little kid, and that sweet spot of a really great party right before everyone gets too drunk.
The energy pulsing around the air-conditioned stadium was purely joyful. Fans danced in their seats to “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love Tonight” and “Despacito” as baseball’s biggest boys stepped up to the plate. The crowd cheered as our large adult sons crushed dingers distances that would get you a significant amount closer to your daily FitBit step goals if you were to walk them.
I haven’t felt that alive at a sporting event in a long time.
One night later, I sat in the same seat for the actual MLB All-Star Game, and the mood felt completely different. There were some empty seats where there hadn’t been on Monday, and fans were more subdued. Sure, they still danced in the stands and did the wave and tried to get on the Jumbotron, as one does. It was lovely, but it wasn’t ... electric.
You know what it felt like? Like we’d gotten to the end of a really fabulous meal when the waiter comes over and says, “Does anyone want to see a dessert menu?” And you all look at each other, and one person starts to say, “Nah, the check would be fine,” before someone else says, “Well, we can just look,” and then next thing you know you’re splitting a molten chocolate cake and a lemon mousse even though you’re pretty full and could’ve just gone home.
Most all-star games, no matter the sport, are the “eh, sure why not” dessert of sports. This designation is not specific to baseball. When you have a normal game with no stakes that’s strictly for exhibition and fan engagement, of course it’s not going to feel as gripping as the more novel events that take place at an all-star event. We never get home run derbies or slam dunk contests in the regular season, but we do get a lot of basketball and baseball games. Especially baseball games. There are so many! And they all matter! Building toward the hopes of postseason glory.
The All-Star Game doesn’t matter. But this year it mattered even less than it has in the past, because it no longer determines home-field advantage for the World Series. Which, according to several players I talked to in the locker rooms before the game, is a great thing.
“I honestly think it’s better that there’s not something riding on it,” said Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon. “I don’t think we need to reward a player by making him play an extra game, and get mad at him when he doesn’t win in a situation where he’s not comfortable playing with coaches he’s never met. When he’s not comfortable out in the field? It just didn’t make sense.”
Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg agreed.
“Putting an impact on a team’s season with the All-Star Game is a challenge,” he said. “Especially when there’s a fan vote and also when there are guys here from teams that aren’t going to make playoffs, so [playing for home field advantage] wouldn’t have as big an impact on them. People are still going to watch the All-Star Game, they still want to see the best players out there see what they can do against the other leagues’ best.”
Many players thought the low-stakes environment would mean that they loosened up out there on the field. With zero consequences comes the chance to really ham it up.
“I think it’ll be a little more fun and joking,” said Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. “We’ll be a little more relaxed. We can have fun with not be as worried about not performing. Obviously you want to perform, but I think it’ll be a lot like home Home Run Derby. You always wanted to treat it like that but couldn’t because it meant so much. It’ll be like backyard whiffle ball tonight.”
The players were goofier during the game — Bryce Harper and George Stringer were mic-ed up, bantering with broadcasters from the field. Harper made a spectacular diving catch and then pulled off the most glorious hair flip I’ve ever seen. Yadier Molina took a picture of Nelson Cruz with umpire Joe West when Cruz was at bat.
But the game wasn’t … riveting. Many players I asked said they’d be competitive, because they’re competitors, and competitors compete (overuse of the word “competitive” here is mine, not theirs). Francisco Lindor told me they’d all still play their hardest, as did Andrew Miller, as well as Strasburg and Blackmon.
I’m slightly skeptical that this ended up being true, given that a ball fell right between Harper and two other players at one point, and there were several other sloppy errors that guys this good usually don’t make.
But I also don’t know that an exciting All-Star Game is necessary. It’s still a really fun event with a celebratory (if more-subdued-than-the-derby) vibe. There are no stakes, and there shouldn’t be. Which means that the game just is what it is, and maybe it can’t be and shouldn’t be anything else besides half-drunk, slightly dazed baseball.
After all, there’s no reason you eat dessert — you don’t down ice cream because it’s good for you or because you definitely need more food. It just tastes good. It’s sweet. It marks the end of something enjoyable.
However: You don’t feel great after you binge on tiramisu. And I didn’t feel great in the press box after consuming way too much All-Star Game by the 10th inning. Which is why I’m offering a solution to keep the All-Star Game delightful but to ensure that we don’t all die of boredom next year: keep it to seven innings.
Seriously. Let’s take a page out of the rec-league softball game book that you and coworkers play in every Tuesday. And if the game is tied by the time they’ve played seven innings, don’t go to extra innings. Just turn it into another Home Run Derby, and whichever league smashes the most dingers in one full batting rotation wins.
I just think that a little less low-stakes baseball would leave everyone — fans and players alike — with an even better taste in their mouths. All-Star weekend is so fun and full of excitement already. We don’t have to make the All-Star Game thrilling, because it pretty much can’t be. But we can make it shorter, and therefore even more enjoyable. Everything in moderation, including moderation. And exhibition baseball games.