- - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We can debate the merits of fan balloting for the MLB All-Star Game, whether popularity or merit should determine which players get the nod.

We can argue about the appropriateness of mandating a representative from every team, which requires the snubbing of several worthwhile candidates.

And we can fuss over the format and participants in the Home Run Derby, boosted by new rules but still struggling to draw some of baseball’s biggest names.

Or we can sit back and enjoy the Mid-Summer Classic for what it is, still the best pickup game among the four major team sports.

The contest will always hold a special place in my heart because my first child was born during an All-Star Game. I remember watching on a hospital TV – of course, with the sound all the way down – as my wife’s contractions came closer and closer together. That was 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

The same goes for the first All-Star Game I attended, on assignment for USA Today’s Baseball Weekly. Then-Boston Red Sox rookie Nomar Garciaparra had agreed to do a first-person diary for us, as-told-to yours truly. It was hard to tell which first-timer’s eyes were wider, his or mine.

Unfortunately, I won’t be in attendance next Tuesday when the All-Star Game is held in San Diego, where the weather and fish tacos make it one of America’s best cities. But seven Cubs – nearly one-third of the roster – will be there, including the entire infield.

In a year when the city of Cleveland ended its long championship drought, the Cubs are baseball’s feel-good story, threatening to end their 107-year streak of futility. They own MLB’s best record, the NL’s top vote-getter (first baseman Anthony Rizzo) and baseball’s coolest manager this side of Dusty Baker (Joe Maddon).

That’s no excuse for Cubs fans voting in shortstop Addison Russell, making Chicago only the second team to have all four starting infielders. But that can happen when your team hasn’t won since 1908 but is the current odds-on favorite in Las Vegas.

The 1963 St. Louis Cardinals – featuring first baseman Bill White, second baseman Julian Javier, third baseman Ken Boyer and shortstop Dick Groat – are the only other team to have all four starters around the horn. “It’s pretty impressive because as a kid, I was blown away by that,” Maddon told reporters. “Any 9-year-old seeing this Cubs infield go, I’d like to believe they felt exactly as I felt in 1963.”

Young Nats fans probably feel the same kind of way about Bryce Harper, making his third career All-Star game start and fourth appearance overall in his five MLB seasons. He leads a quartet of Nationals players, including MVP candidate Daniel Murphy, Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg and slugging catcher Wilson Ramos, tying Washington with Miami for second-most NL representatives.

Murphy fell 88 votes short of starting at second base. He was beaten out by Chicago’s Ben Zobrist, the Nats’ first choice during the offseason before they “settled” for Murphy. Through Tuesday, the former Mets player merely led the NL in batting average and hits while ranking among the top three in total bases, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging.

“The guys that are headed there, I think they deserve to be headed there,” Baker told reporters. “I would have liked to have seen Max Scherzer make it and I would have liked to have seen Danny Espinosa. But Danny came on kind of late for the voting. I’m sure he’s on the radar in people’s minds for next year.”

Espinosa is coming off a week like none other (for an All-Star or even a Hall of Famer), batting .423 with 17 RBI and five home runs – including homers from both sides of the plate in separate games. He led the Nats in four-baggers through Tuesday, edging out Harper, 18-17.

Harper is one of the faces of baseball, among the game’s most marketable stars. He’s tied for 13th in home runs but has no desire to hit some big flies during the Home Run Derby in San Diego. That’s a huge disappointment to baseball officials and many fans, but the contest simply isn’t his thing at this point.

“I just don’t want to, plain and simple,” he told reporters. I just want to enjoy my time, sit on the side and watch it a little bit. I enjoyed watching [Todd] Frazier win it last year, and I just don’t feel like doing it.”

I don’t blame him, especially if he fears the contest might mess up his swing afterward. Better for him to relax and take it easy outside of the contest itself. That’s enough.

Unlike versions in the NBA (no defense), NFL (no tackling) and NHL (3-on-3), baseball’s All-Star Game bears the closest resemblance to the regular product. We can haggle over who’s in it, how they’re selected and which ancillary events surround the main event.

It’s still crazy that home field in the World Series rides on the outcome. But we can just sit back, enjoy and prepare for the second half of the season.

The All-Star break remains a breath of fresh air.

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