Every now and again, there will be a goofy story that perfectly captures one of baseball’s biggest problems in the year 2013: The game is too often trapped by its own history.
This Yasiel Puig All-Star goofiness is just such a story.
Yasiel Puig is, for the moment, the most interesting player in baseball and I don’t think it’s even very close. No, it might not last. But it’s true now. Puig escaped from Cuba after several attempts, held a tryout in Mexico, signed for some big money with the Los Angeles Dodgers, flashed some talent and volatility in the minors, came up in June and is still hitting .400 (.409, to be exact, with a .677 slugging percentage). He has also shown some speed, a breathtaking arm, an unceasing engine and a visual joy for baseball.
He’s mesmerizing. Vin Scully, who has seen everything, is perpetually wowed by the kid. The Dodgers, who seemed DOA when he arrived, have won 19 of 32 games since. He’s been much-watch television for a sport that has very, very few stars -- more on that in a moment.
And people inside the game –- people who are supposed to want people to CARE about baseball -- are actually arguing whether he belongs in the All-Star Game.
To paraphrase William Jennings Bryan, or, perhaps, it was Allen Iverson: We are talking ‘bout the All-Star Game. We are talking about an exhibition game that is supposed to, let’s see here, oh yeah, that’s right, celebrate baseball. We are talking about a sport desperately needs national stars. We are talking about a game that lost a million households in the ratings last year, a million the year before, two million the year before that – at this rate baseball soon can have an intimate All-Star watch party in St. Louis while allowing the rest of the country to watch a Family Guy marathon.
Why in the world would the most interesting player in baseball NOT be in the All-Star Game? The answer is simple: History. They’ve been playing the All-Star Game since 1933, when Lou Gehrig played first and Babe Ruth was in right field. Ted Williams hit the eephus pitch. Stan Musial hit the walk-off homer. Reggie Jackson hit one on the roof. Carl Hubbell struck out five Hall of Famers in a row. Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse. Bo Jackson mashed the long home run.*
*In many ways, Jackson’s All-Star Game home run was a perfect example of what the game should be – Jackson by production standards, did not deserve to be an All-Star. He was hitting .263 at the break. There were better players. But there were no more exciting players, and the fans wanted to see him, and he did something unforgettable, and isn’t that the whole point of the thing?
In other words, The All-Star Game used to mean something very different. It used to be a game of stars – and that was enough. That made America stop. The 1982 All-Star Game, for instance, drew a 25 rating, more than 20 million households, three times the audience of last year’s game.
Or how about this one: When Pete Rose crashed into Ray Fosse at the 1970 All-Star Game, it drew a 54 share – more than HALF of the televisions on that Tuesday night were turned to that game. Of course, it was a much different time for television as well as for baseball. This was long before cable and DVRs and streaming. But this is the history baseball still competes against.
More to the point, this is the history that still traps baseball. Should the season really be 162 games long? Probably not. But it’s tradition. Should we still be judging starting pitchers by “wins” when they average – AVERAGE – fewer than six innings per start? Probably not. But it’s tradition. Heck, even the smallest and most obvious changes – like finally outlawing the ridiculous fake to third throw to first play – rattles the cages of the game.
And so the All-Star Game – which used to matter when America was a different place – clings to the traditions of another time. Why wouldn’t Yasiel Puig be in the All-Star Game? Because, this thinking goes, he hasn’t EARNED it. He has not proven his worth. He has only been around for a month. How could you call him an All-Star already? Ted Wiliams was an All-Star! Willie Mays was an All-Star! In the bizarre words of reliever Jonathan Papelbon : “To me, it’s an absolute joke … (Puig making the All-Star Game) really does an injustice to the veteran player that have been in the game for eight-, nine-, 10-plus years.”
Papelbon’s words have been roundly mocked, but this kind of thinking permeates baseball. Why doesn’t the All-Star Game experiment with some new rules? Why don’t they include great players from the past? Why don’t they make it more fun, more interactive, more compelling? The answer comes from another time, when just having an All-Star Game was enough to get people excited. That’s just not true anymore.
The other day, I was asking someone who is a moderate baseball fan to name the most famous baseball player in America today. He said: Derek Jeter. I said, “He has not played all year. Pick someone else.”
He said, “Alex Rodriguez.” I said, “He has not played all year either. Pick someone else.”
He thought about it for a while and said: “Um. Albert Pujols.” I said, “He has been terrible this season.”
He finally said Miguel Cabrera, but it took forever, and anyways, it probably isn’t true. He’s the best hitter in the game, but famous? No. Not like that. Who is the most famous player in the game right now? Josh Hamilton? Having a terrible season. Justin Verlander? Maybe, but would the average person recognize him on the street? If you ask someone to name the most famous football player in America, they will instantly say Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or RGIII or Adrian Peterson. If you ask someone to name the most famous basketball player, they will say LeBron James before you finish the sentence and Kobe Bryant just after you finish. But baseball? The game simply does not have that kind of national scope. The game has always been marketed locally, and after all these years it has become a local game. The most famous baseball players are former players or players, like Jeter and Ichiro and A-Rod, who have had much better days.
Yasiel Puig, for a few moments, has broken through that. People are actually interested in him outside of Los Angeles. People actually want to see him play. And with that in mind, some actually argue whether or not he should be in the All-Star Game? Odd. But that’s the state of baseball at the moment.
In the end, I suspect Puig will sneak into the game through baseball’s Final Vote. That’s one where they let fans choose one final player and you would think Puig would win since he got more than 800,000 write-in votes in a month. Meanwhile, in the American League Final Vote, fans get to choose one of five relief pitchers, so that’s exciting.