Still midsummer, less classic

Baseball’s erstwhile Midsummer Classic gradually has lost its luster over the years, but Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in New York is expected to restore some of its buzz.

Major League Baseball selected Yankee Stadium to play host to the game as part of the yearlong farewell to the historic ballpark, which will close at the end of this season. The game is expected to be a nationally televised appreciation of the stadium as much as a contest between the American and National leagues.

“I’ve never looked more forward to a game going in,” said Joe Buck, who will do the play-by-play for Fox. “It really is special. It’s not just an All-Star Game in New York, it’s the total package.”

If viewers aren’t drawn to seeing the best players of today, they might be attracted by the best players of yesteryear, dozens of whom will be on hand. Fox will start its coverage at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than normal, to show highlights from a red carpet parade involving 47 Hall of Famers down the Avenue of Americas in Manhattan.

Ratings for the All-Star Game generally have been on the decline since the early 1990s, around the time when cable television began to take off and compete directly with the major networks. Last year’s game drew an 8.4 rating, the second-lowest in history.

Network officials are quick to point out that the game is routinely one of the highest-rated programs of the summer and has held a consistent 25 percent edge over network prime-time programming. But gone are the days of the 1970s, when more than half the sets in the country were tuned in.

“Sports is so accessible now, it’s just not as big of a deal,” said George Belch, a professor of sports marketing at San Diego State. “Years ago, you’d tune into the All-Star Game to see players you never saw. Now you see them all the time.”

And while viewing habits have changed, so has the All-Star Game itself. During its heyday, the top stars played nearly every inning, and no one seemed concerned whether reserve players got into the game.

“It’s a different game now,” said Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, now an ESPN analyst. “Now it’s an exhibition. Before it was life and death.”

Trades and free agency have allowed players to move between leagues from year to year, eliminating much of the old rivalry.

“Players now look at themselves as players, not just American or National leaguers,” said former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips, now an ESPN analyst. “In the past, you represented your league. But because of movement, that’s been diluted a little bit.”

MLB has tweaked the game in recent years to boost interest, by expanding rosters and creating more chances for fans to select the players. The biggest change came in 2003, when baseball announced that homefield advantage in the World Series would be awarded to the team representing the league that won the All-Star Game.

“You’ve got every reason now to manage the game to win,” Buck said. “Doing a game where it actually means something, I enjoy it. It’s become less of an exhibition and more of a baseball game, and I for one like that.”

Morgan, however, said he’s not convinced players take it that seriously.

“You can say what you want, but until players buy into it, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Nonetheless, recent All-Star Games have offered their share of drama. In 2006, the AL won 3-2 after a two-run, ninth-inning triple by the Texas Rangers’ Michael Young. And the 2003 All-Star Game was considered one of the most exciting in history, as the Rangers’ Hank Blalock sparked the AL to a 7-6 win with a three-run homer in the eighth inning off Dodgers closer Eric Gagne.

But there also have been less than stellar moments, none worse than the 2002 contest in Milwaukee that ended in a 7-7 tie in 11 innings because both teams ran out of players. The AL’s dominance - its last loss came in 1996 - also has lessened interest.

But Tuesday’s game just might offer fans a new reason to tune in.

“This is just a great, great celebration of baseball, for baseball, for all sports fans,” Fox Sports president Ed Goren said. “Twenty years from now, kids are going to be saying I saw Hank Aaron, I saw Yogi Berra, I saw [Derek] Jeter. And on and on. And baseball is about that.”

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