I have attended exactly one All Star Game in my life. It was 1984 in old Candlestick Park when I was in high school. Other than the fact that my oldest friend Crazy Charlie spent $100, which seemed at the time like an enormous amount of money to see a baseball game, for his ticket, I only have two real memories of the game. First, I remember watching in amazement as George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield took turns hitting the ball into the upper deck in right field during batting practice. Second, although he did not get to pitch in the game, I remember watching the movement on Phil Niekro’s knuckleball as he warmed up in the late innings. I know that the National League won because they always did during those years, but until I looked it up recently I could not have told you the score or any other detail of the game.
All Star games are like that. The problem with the All Star Game is not that it is meaningless, it is that it isn’t baseball. More accurately the All Star Game is not a baseball game. The All Star Game is a fun mid-season break. The Future’s Game, fan fests and the like can be great events. Even home run derbies have some value as pure spectacle, but the game itself isn’t really a baseball game.
For most of its history, the All Star Game was purely an exhibition game with nothing at all at stake. Since 2003, this has changed as the representative of the league which wins the All Star Game gets the home field advantage for the World Series. This has made the All Star Game more interesting in some respects, but the fundamental problem still persists.
This year the All Star teams will each have 33 players, 13-14 of whom will be pitchers. Assuming managers Charlie Manuel and Joe Maddon make good faith efforts to get all the players into the game, each pitcher, on average, will retire two batters. Position players will have it a little better. If each team has 15 players reach base, it is possible that each position player will average two plate appearances, but if the pitching is good many players will only come up once.
The desire to get all the players into the game stems from the good intentions of making the All Star Game a feel good event for everybody involved. The problem is that it makes managing a difficult and somewhat pointless job. Of course, not every player will get into the game. If the previous two nine inning All Star Games, excluding last year’s 15 inning marathon, are any guide, each team will use between seven to nine pitchers and 16-20 position players. This is still far too large a number for the game to resemble a real baseball game.
The constant substitutions and the brief time each player usually plays undermine the rhythm and feel of a real baseball game. It also requires thinking strategically in a way that is unfamiliar to fan. A player who is hitting well still gets removed from a game at a key time if he has already batted his requisite two or three times. Starting pitchers with little bullpen experience are brought in to relieve and defensively superior players are rarely saved for late inning defensive substitutions. Additionally, the All Star Game is a stand alone event that does not occur in any larger context, but it is context which makes many baseball games so enjoyable and even understandable.
All of this is probably inevitable given the number of teams and the size of the rosters. So, as in most things in life, the best strategy for the All Star Game is to adjust expectations. So, enjoy that home run derby, think about those stars from the Futures Game who play your favorite organization and savor those few truly great matchups if Tim Lincecum gets to pitch to Evan Longoria or if Mariano Rivera gets to strike out some future Hall of Famer for the final out, but do not mistake it for a real baseball game.