HELLER: Remember when the All-Star Game was a big deal?

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This was in July 1973 at Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium, and I was wondering who to interview in the National League’s clubhouse after the so-called Senior Circuit’s 7-1 victory when a middle-aged man materialized beside me wearing a towel around his thickening middle. He was about my height, had salt-and-pepper hair and appeared totally ordinary.

Then reality dawned with a jolt: My God, that’s Willie Mays! I always thought Willie Mays was 10 feet tall!

My first All-Star Game was the erstwhile Say Hey Kid’s 24th and last. He struck out as a pinch-hitter, stumbled around in the New York Mets‘ outfield in that fall’s World Series and retired at 42 at after batting .211 in 66 games. Yet merely seeing him on the All-Star scene was a thrill, no matter how far over the hill he might have been.

As the annual midsummer exhibition returns to K.C. on Tuesday night, it is startling to realize how much baseball has changed. In ‘73, for example, there was no free agency, only one playoff series in each league and nobody had heard of steroids. Meanwhile, as Bob Wolfley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obligingly points out, a gallon of gas cost about 65 cents, a loaf of bread 27 cents and the average major league salary was $36,566. (Mays was the game’s highest-paid player at $170,000.)

The biggest change, however, is that the All-Star Game seems to mean so much less than it once did. Will you stay awake until midnight or so to watch a mostly meaningless contest and hear Tim McCarver babble endlessly on Fox? If so, you might be in the minority, at least in the East.

No longer does league pride matter the way it used to. You’ve surely seen clips of Ted Williams clapping his hands joyously while rounding the bases after his walk-off homer in 1941 or Pete Rose laying out catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in ‘70. Such nutty behavior nowadays, even by the Nationals’ exuberant Bryce Harper, might bring out guys with white coats and nets.

When I was a kid living in D.C., National League baseball may as well have been played on the moon. TV’s Game of the Day wasn’t carried in major league markets, so the All-Star Game was the only chance we had to see NL stars like Mays, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron, et al, was in the All-Star Game. That made it a big, big deal.

Nowadays games from both leagues are available at the click of a remote over ESPN and MLB TV, plus regional cable stations, and highlights from everywhere flit across the screen until your eyes water. Want to find out how the Giants, Angels or Rangers did after you went to bed? Just turn on your electronic device of choice as you slurp your morning coffee.

Plus, we have interleague play, an aberration designed to artificially boost attendance and interest. Sure it’s interesting if the Yankees are playing the Mets or the Dodgers are meeting the Angels. But who gives a rodent’s rump when it’s the Rockies against the Indians or the Pirates against the Twins?

All interleague combat does is reiterate how much weaker the once-proud National League is. The AL, with its ghastly designated-hitter rule, had a 142-110 edge in 2012, the ninth straight season when it mopped up its older rival. Equality anyone?

All these factors have combined to make the All-Star Game a relic that appeals to fewer and fewer fans. It’s fun to speculate throughout June and early July whether your team’s best will be selected, and it’s neat to watch the pregame introductions when players wearing different uniforms become teammates for a night. But too often the All-Star Game is sort of like Christmas - the anticipation trumps the reality.

Nine years ago, commissioner Bud Selig and his minions attempted to reawaken interest by awarding the winning league a home-field advantage in the World Series. All this did was reiterate that the All-Star Game has become a horsehide oxymoron requiring a gimmick to make it seem relevant.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still be watching because I’m a traditionalist and, after all, it is an All-Star Game. Then again, so is the NFL’s widely ignored Pro Bowl.

Seeing Willie Mays in an All-Star clubhouse might not be that much of a thrill anymore. Of course, he’s 81 now.

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