AS MUCH AS IT PAINS ME TO ADMIT IT, I watched every minute of Major League Baseball’s All-Star festivities. This isn’t a reflection on the quality of the event so much as the absolute dearth of other sports options. Aside from the first few weeks after the Super Bowl, there is no worse time on the professional sports calendar than early July. The resurgent NBA just wrapped up a stellar championship series, leaving major sport diehards to sift through the athletic dregs. I would sooner watch a Mob Wives marathon than sit through another week of Wimbledon highlights, Dwight Howard trade analysis, and Bounty-Gate.
In that sense, the Home Run Derby was a welcome diversion. There’s a laid-back yet electric vibe to the competition, to witnessing Prince Fielder’s quiet swagger and Matt Kemp’s bravado. Part of the Derby’s appeal is that storylines aren’t a part of the equation—it’s a display of and appreciation for talent. The footage of Mark Trumbo hitting bomb after bomb over the fountains of Kauffman Stadium will probably be shown before his Hall of Fame induction someday. Even Chris Berman’s tired one-liners and pained exultations are revitalized in the moment. I felt myself coming around to the spectacle…and then Robinson Cano couldn’t hit a home run.
As the reigning Derby Champion, Cano was granted the honor of selecting a team of American League representatives to participate in the event. Like any logical athlete, the Yankee picked a bunch of guys that can hit the ball really far. No one can question the selections of Prince Fielder, Jose Bautista, and Mark Trumbo. All of these guys are having monstrous seasons, and have the type of swing that’s suited to the event. Moreover, they’re fan favorites, players that can truly wow a crowd by putting on an offensive clinic.
As the hometown crowd, Royals fans took exception to the fact that their local “slugger” Billy Butler didn’t merit an invitation from Cano. Butler is a solid player, the type of guy that gets on base and drives in runs. Brad Pitt would think he’s the perfect baseball player. Still, he’s never hit more than 21 home runs in a season, while most of the participants have already hit 20 in the first half. Royals fans are apparently immune to logic, and sarcastically cheered every time Cano made an out. When Cano’s final swing fell short of the mark, Kauffman Stadium erupted as if the Royals had just won the World Series.
Most fans likely found the whole debacle hilarious, a harmless joke at Cano’s expense for snubbing the local hero. Ever the class act, Cano took the ribbing in stride and laughed it off. That didn’t stop the sports pundits from blowing the crowd’s reaction completely out of proportion. For the next 24 hours, ESPN analysts and beat writers alike tripped over themselves in an effort to squeeze every last sound byte and anecdote out of a complete non-issue. Royals fans were called classless, salty, and about a thousand other exaggerated insults. Why, because they booed an athlete? Welcome to professional sports, boys. If Cano’s upset, he can wipe away his tears with $100 bills.
Usually I’m able to find a measure of solace in the Celebrity Softball Game. It’s an event that has never tried to be more than what it is: a glorified beer-league disaster rife with slapstick, supermodels, and Rollie Fingers. Where else can you see Chrissy Teigen prance around on the same field as crazy ol’ Rickey Henderson? And of course, there’s my well-documented and highly questionable man-crush on Jon Hamm to consider (he went yard, by the way). Remove Bill Simmons’ snide commentary from the equation, and you have the sort of mindless entertainment that puts asses in the seats.
The Cano story wasn’t the only otherwise minor storyline to receive the ESPN treatment. Throughout the week, analysts were bashing Tony La Russa for his decision to start Matt Cain over R.A. Dickey. The decision was a source of endless Sportscenter updates, blogs, and columns. The constant overhype and over-analysis of these trivial events provides further evidence to the fact that All-Star week just isn’t that exciting. For all the talk of an All-Star selection being an “honor,” players are usually indifferent to the game itself. Most of them would rather have a few days off than play in a sham of a baseball game, where the only perceptible result is deciding which $200 million dollar team will have home-field advantage in the World Series.
The game itself was an absolute dud—an 8-0 shutout, punctuated by the early-game heroics of Melky Cabrera, of all people. The National League put up 5 runs in the 1st inning, and both sides essentially coasted the rest of the way. In many ways, the game mirrored its media coverage—overexposed and painfully drawn out. Honestly, it made Wimbledon look like a great viewing option for next summer.
I can understand why baseball fans are willing to fiercely defend the All-Star game. It’s a revered annual event for a sport defined by its traditions. Place enough superstars on a grand stage, and you’re bound to come across a memorable moment or two. It was certainly nice to see Cal Ripken Jr. take a curtain call at Camden Yards, or to see Chipper Jones make one final All-Star appearance. But for every powerful moment, there’s an equally deflating trophy presentation to a journeyman outfielder. Maybe next year Randy Winn will bring it home.
By all means, enjoy the All-Star Week festivities. Take the game for what it is—a showcase of the best baseball players in the world, playing at about 50 percent capacity. You’ll get to see hated rivals playing together, and possibly even a poignant moment or two. Just don’t except everyone else to join you on your soapbox as you rail against those disrespectful Royals fans. Better yet, just watch some Celebrity Softball and call it a night.
Tom Barrabi is a New York-based sportswriter.