- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fifty years ago this week when baseball’s All-Star Game turned up in town at old Griffith Stadium for the first time since 1937, it was a walloping big deal for citizens unable to escape Washington’s blistering heat in that largely non-air conditioned era.

Similar excitement ensued in 1962 and 1969 when the so-called Midsummer Classic was played at D.C./RFK Stadium. But when it likely returns in a few years, after the Nationals’ Anacostia Waterfront ballpark opens, you have to wonder how many folks will even notice.

Baseball? All-Star Game? Hey, when do the Redskins open training camp?

There are many reasons why the All-Star Game now seems almost an afterthought to the overhyped Home Run Derby that precedes it. All of them, however, add up to this sadly inescapable fact: Major League Baseball has cheapened what once was a prime event by caving in to the demands of economics.

This is nothing new, of course, for a sport that stages its annual championship series exclusively at night, thereby forcing many younger fans and their parents to choose between baseball and slumber. Remember when the World Series was played exclusively in sunshine, meaning before 1971? I’ve never understood why at least the weekend games aren’t contested in the daytime, but then I’m not one of the people who must bow and scrape before the twin gods of TV and advertising revenue.

Speaking of the World Series, are you old enough to remember when it was, unquestionably, the most important thing on the annual fun-and-games calendar? Now, thanks to the lunkheads who run baseball into the ground, the Series long since has been eclipsed by the Super Bowl — and possibly the Final Four and NBA Finals as well.

Endless TV highlights and interleague play have done their part to do in the All-Star Game. Considering the customary lowly status of our late, lamented Senators, this once was virtually the only chance for Washingtonians to see National Leaguers like Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and baseball’s prime pioneer, Jackie Robinson. In the 1950s, the All-Star Game was important in these parts for that reason alone. I remember having a couple of obscure relatives die just in time for me to attend their funerals on Tuesday afternoons in front of a TV set instead of working at this or that summer job.

The players took All-Star matters seriously then because the question of which league was stronger seemed a burning issue. The power-packed American League won 12 of the first 16 games, but the presence of many more black and/or Latino stars enabled the National League to win 19 of the next 25 starting in 1950.

In those days, too, you didn’t have players begging off because of a hangnail or summer cold. It was an honor to be chosen and play.

In 1941, after Ted Williams won the game for the American League with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, he clapped his hands gleefully as he rounded the bases. Nowadays, many of the fans might not even applaud. In Pittsburgh last night, I’ll bet there was more talk about Ben Roethlisberger’s hard head and Bill Cowher’s hard persona than about baseball. After all, the Pirates are buried so deep in last place that not even Roberto Clemente’s indomitable spirit could arouse them.

If you stayed up to watch the entire game last night, you might deserve a medal — though you probably would be too bleary-eyed to appreciate it. All-Star Games always run long because of all the personnel changes, and now they might have to share the late-night tube with Jay Leno and David Letterman. Heck, even Conan O’Brien might be wrapping things up before baseball does.

There’s no reason why baseball can’t start the All-Star Game at, say, 6 or 6:30 p.m., Eastern time, which works OK for the Super Bowl. As far as baseball buffs out west are concerned, they will find a way to tune in, even if it’s in a saloon instead of a rec room.

Unfortunately, Major League Baseball, those wonderful and considerate people who let the nation’s capital languish without a team for 34 years, cares less for the public than it does the quick, easy bucks that TV networks toss around. Real baseball fans, the kind who can truly appreciate an Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter or Ryan Zimmerman, should be angry — but hardly surprised.

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