- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

So this is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Week.

So ho hum.

In hopes of jazzing up the Midsummer Nonclassic, commissioner Bud Selig and his minions — the same wonderful people who obviously don’t want to give us our own team — have decreed that the winner of the 74th All-Star Game will earn home-field advantage in the World Series.

This is a decent idea, perhaps baseball’s first since, say, 1920, when pitches dripping with spit and other unsavory substances were outlawed. Trouble is, it only came about because Selig and his minions were royally roasted for allowing last July’s festivities to end in a tie that probably made some sleepy late-night viewers wonder whether they were watching Major League Soccer.

Nonetheless, how many folks still care about the All-Star Game — or about baseball for that matter?

With my last breath, I’ll proclaim that this is the best sport devised by mankind, or at least the best sport whose pictures can run in a family newspaper. I grew up at a time when it was nearly everybody’s favorite game hereabouts, as lousy as the old Washington Senators usually were. The reason was that baseball was played nearly every day from April to October — and with plenty of doubleheaders, too.

The Redskins played 12 games in those days, the Senators 154, and there was no professional hockey or basketball in town. For most fans, the Nats (short for the club’s official name of Nationals) were it, although mathematically they could lose 13 times as many games in a season as George Preston Marshall’s lily-white Deadskins.

Nowadays the seemingly endless number of baseball games is seen by many as a curse — no wonder when one of them can consume 3 hours of spitting, scratching and pitching changes. And with a zillion major league games on the tube, plus highlight shows, it’s no big deal watching stars from the other league twinkle.

A few decades ago, it was all so different. For a kid growing up in Washington in the ‘50s, the All-Star Game frequently was our only chance to see the likes of Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Ralph Kiner, Willie Mays and Cincinnati Redlegs slugger Ted Kluszewski, whose bare biceps might have been bigger than Pee Wee Reese. (If you don’t know why Cincinnati’s team was called the Redlegs then, read up on the Cold War.)

Oddly, the All-Star Game was played in Washington three times in 14 years: at Griffith Stadium in 1956, at new D.C. Stadium in ‘62 and at the renamed RFK Stadium in ‘69 — the last because Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium wasn’t completed in time for baseball’s centennial celebration.

As a teenager attending the ‘56 affair, I was thrilled to my formal black shoetops. The game was dedicated to Clark Griffith, the Senators’ longtime owner who had died the previous October. I remember talking to a couple of guys around my age: Clark Griffith III, who threw out the first ball in memory of his grandfather, and Frank Robinson, who made the National League team as a rookie. They were thrilled to be there, too.

Who could have guessed that all of us would live to see the All-Star Game, and baseball itself, become almost irrelevant? Yet both men can bear witness to the sport’s latter-day idiocy. Robinson manages the Montreal Expos, who have no real home and might survive only until Selig and his minions can reintroduce the contraction issue after the 2006 season. Griffith, now a Minnesota lawyer, has been trying to assemble a group to buy the Twins (formerly the original Senators) only to find the asking price beyond reason.

So if you want to regard the diminished All-Star Game as a microcosm of baseball in the 21st century, be my guest. Once the sport was called our national pastime; now such a nickname induces snickers. You can almost hear whippersnappers asking, “Hey, geezers, ever hear of the NFL and NBA?”

Years ago, being chosen to represent your league in the All-Star Game was a badge of honor. Before the first in 1933, Lou Gehrig said he would jeopardize his consecutive-games streak to play. In 1941, Ted Williams clapped his hands in delight as he ran around the bases after delivering a game-winning home run in the last of the ninth. In 1970, Pete Rose barreled into catcher Ray Fosse so hard while scoring the winning run that Fosse sustained a career-ruining shoulder injury.

Do you think many of today’s millionaires in spikes care about the greater glory of their league? After all, the All-Star Game is an exhibition, so why risk your health and happiness for no good reason? Every year, a couple of jocks beg off because of hangnails or similarly debilitating injuries.

Last week Sidney Ponson, the Orioles’ emerging ace, said if he wasn’t picked by American League manager Mike Scioscia, “I’ll find something else to do.” And if Scioscia should call later, Ponson added, “He can forget it.”

What arrogance and effrontery! You’d think the kid grew up in Aruba or something.

For us graybeards, though, the All-Star Game survives as at least a reminder of how much fun it used to be — the flags draped over box seats, the bands playing, the introductions of baseball’s best players in their various uniforms. Now it seems almost a follow-up act to the endless Home Run Derby.

It’s all so sad, just like baseball itself.

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