It almost isn’t worth writing about, really. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t care about the baseball All-Star Game any more, and haven’t for many years, so why should I care that it just got even worse? I mention it now, I guess, as a cautionary tale about life, entropy, management and ethics, because one of baseball’s great values is its usefulness as a metaphor for many more important things.
The All-Star Game, which will be played in Los Angeles this week, was once a major sporting event. The brainstorm of a Chicago sportswriter, the idea was to have a super-game, with two baseball teams made up of the best players in the American and National Leagues, as an exhibition to make money for a players’ pension fund. The two leagues only played each other during the World Series and were organizationally distinct, so it promised to create memorable confrontations that couldn’t be seen during the regular season. Moreover, the players approached the game as test of pride: as All-Stars elected by the fans, they didn’t want to lose or look bad, so they went all out.
It really was a great game most years. Player exploits during the game burnished their reputations and became legends. Television made the game even more popular
Then a series of events, developments and decisions caused the All-Star Game to rot, and its popularity to wither away. The life lesson: all things have a tendency to fall apart. Here is an incomplete list of the stages of the event’s deterioration:
- The starting teams were originally determined by fan voting. Then, because the voting method was easy to corrupt, Cincinnati Reds fans in 1957 rigged the voting to get all of the Reds regulars elected to the team. Of course before this, arguments that the voting system was subject to manipulation were countered by “Come on! There’s never been any substantial proof of voter fraud.” The scandal caused Major League Baseball to take away the fans’ vote for more than a decade. The players did the voting. Often they did a lousy job.
- For several years, MLB decided that since the All-Star Game was so popular, there should be two All-Star Games. The law of diminishing returns attached: the exhibition was now over-exposed, and TV ratings fell. Soon the number of All-Star Games each season was was back to one.
- Not long after free-agency caused player salaries to soar in 1977, the game no longer resulted in enough financial benefits to inspire now rich players to agree to play in it. If a player was injured a bit, or tired, or just wanted to spend time with his family, he begged off. More begged off every year.
- Players were already starting to play the All-Star Game like it was a company picnic softball game. The tipping point was the 1970 contest, a thrilling extra-inning game that ended with Pete Rose leveling AL catcher Ray Fosse with a brutal body-block at home plate to score the winning run for the National League. Fosse was badly injured, and while some defended Rose’s competitiveness, the consensus in baseball culture was that players shouldn’t play so hard in a game that didn’t “count.” Soon they weren’t playing hard at all.
- Then the managers stopped trying to win. Little by little, the starting players were allowed to play less and less, and the tradition evolved that stars loweriong themselves to agree to play in the game obligated managers to make sure they got into the game for their trouble. Soon the thing looked like a bus station terminal with baseball uniforms, a parade of substitutions on the mound, in the field and at the plate.
- In 1997, MLB, facing a decline in attendance, instituted interleague play with National League teams playing American League teams during the regular season. This eliminated one of the primary reasons for the All-Star Game. (It also devalued the World Series.)
- In 2002, the game went into extra-innings, and the managers had been so focused on getting everyone a chance to play an inning or so that both teams ran out of pitchers after the 10th. Then Commissioner Bud Selig, an idiot, had a chance to tell the managers, “Tough. Do what you would do if you ran out of pitchers in a regular game. This is your fault; you deal with it.” The likely consequences of that would have been ugly, but it would have been entertaining, and upheld the integrity of the game. Instead, Bud just declared the game a tie and that was that. Message: “Who cares?” Fans got the message.
And now this year, the last rotten hunk of what used to be a baseball season highlight has dropped off the shambling corpse of the All-Star Game. Buried in exhibit 13 of the memorandum of understanding that settled the MLB lockout March 10 of this year was a provision declaring that if the All-Star Game is tied after nine innings, the winner will be determined by a home run derby:
“…the manager of each league’s All-Star team shall select three players on his team’s active roster who have agreed to participate in the All-Star tiebreaker, if applicable; one alternate player from his active roster who has agreed to participate in the All-Star tiebreaker, if necessary due to injury to a tiebreaker selection; an All-Star team coach who will throw batting practice during the All-Star tiebreaker; and an All-Star team bullpen catcher who will catch during the All-Star tiebreaker…..each player can take an unlimited number of pitches without it counting against their swing total. Players on each team may hit in any order during the All-Star tiebreaker; provided, however, the batters from each team shall alternate.”
Whatever. I don’t know why they didn’t decide to use a potato sack race, or a tug-o-war. Maybe Paper Stone and Scissors.
I’m out, but I leave taking a few lessons from this fiasco:
1. When the management of a professional sport doesn’t believe strongly enough in its own game to stick to the rules in its All-Star Game, that sport is in deep, deep trouble.
2. Of all the ethical values, the one that causes the most destruction to organizations, institutions, governments and societies when breached is competence.
3. The greatest threats to any culture are apathy, dismissal of integrity and inattention to core values.