In July 1970, Pete Rose ended Ray Fosse’s career. I didn’t see it live. I’m too young for that. But my dad did. My grandfather did. A lot of people I’ve met over time saw that play live. That was the very definition of what the All-Star Game meant to players back then, they would say. The players cared. They didn’t worry about hurting someone else, protecting their own body, or taking it easy because their respective club was in a pennant chase. They played hard. So Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse, scored the winning run, and ended Fosse’s career.
In 1941, Ted Williams hit what could be the most famous home run in All-Star Game history. That home run
came in the bottom of the ninth, and Williams had started the game. That’s right, he played all nine innings. He blasted a game-winning three run home run into the right field bleachers to give the American League the win. It was about more than just some exhibition game back then, the old timers will say. It meant so much to the players, they would play the whole game.
The stories are plentiful. They are both ever-lasting and prominent in our every thought when the All-Star Game roles around each year. And with each new All-Star Game the complaints about the game’s changes continue and grow. The game decides home field advantage in the World Series now, but who cares? Is that really what you’re complaining about? No, you’re complaining because there is so much talent out there now, starters don’t last more than three innings, and you see a new pitcher almost every half inning. You’re complaining because you get a taste of all the greatness our modern game of baseball has to offer. But you say you’re complaining about the negative changes to the game, about the way players don’t care, about those “injuries” and injury-replacement players. But that’s not true.
You’re romanticizing the past and forgetting about some of the great moments in modern All-Star Game history that will soon become legendary. They will soon be the moments your children complain don’t happen anymore because there will surely be new changes to the game when they grow up.
Cal Ripken started the 2001 All-Star Game at third base. He had moved to third years earlier after a long, successful career at shortstop. The fans voted him into the game, to start the game, despite mediocre numbers. He was a living legend, and numbers don’t matter when that’s the case. When Ripken took the field in Seattle at third base, he was followed by Alex Rodriguez who was voted the game’s starting shortstop. In a plan orchestrated by Rodriguez and manager Joe Torre, Rodriguez told Ripken to look into the dugout. Torre was motioning him over to shortstop. Ripken was hesitant, but Rodriguez made it clear that he wasn’t playing there – that it was Ripken’s spot on the diamond. The move was Rodriguez’s idea – a gesture many who dislike Rodriguez have chosen to forget – and it lives on in All-Star Game lore. But that wasn’t the end of the legendary night.
Cal Ripken Jr. had previously announced that he would retire at the end of the season. He was a lock for the Hall of Fame. He was the Iron Man. This would be his final All-Star appearance in a career that saw him make an astounding 19-straight All-Star Games. He had made a career out of great performances and lasting memories on the diamond and at the plate. But he had one more memory to make for everyone.
As I write this, the goosebumps return, and I feel them just as I did while watching the moment in my living room. In Ripken’s first at-bat of his final All-Star Game, the crowd cheered so loud, so joyously, that Ripken had to step out of the batter’s box to acknowledge them – a testament to how loved he was throughout all of baseball. That combined with the earlier move from third to short was good enough to make for one of the greatest All-Star Game memories in history, but Ripken had a little more in store. On the first pitch he saw, Ripken smashed a laser-beam line drive off Chan-Ho Park that just cleared the left field wall. If it were Wrigley Field with its old concrete and less-than-modern construction, the ball park would have collapsed. The fans exploded with a roar that may never have been heard in an All-Star Game before. His American League teammates jumped around with smiles from ear-to-ear. The National League players did their best to keep their composure, but they couldn’t. Cal Ripken Jr. had just become the oldest player to homer in an All-Star Game, and he did it in his final All-Star Game. That’s the stuff that makes All-Star Games great.
Oh, and he only had two at-bats before being replaced by Troy Glaus. Not too bad for a game where one of the greatest players of all-time didn’t play the whole game.
And that’s the point. The game has changed. The romanticized notion that players actually have a say in how long they will play in the All-Star Game is so outdated, it’s almost laughable when someone complains about the number of players used. The truth is, there are more teams now than in 1941, there are more players, and there are more fans who want to see ALL those players.
In 2008, we were given a moment that combined with the simple fact that he was even playing in an All-Star Game places it among the best ever. In the Home Run Derby the day before the All-Star Game in 2008, Josh Hamilton officially stepped out of the shadows of his past and into the spotlight of baseball superstardom. Hamilton didn’t win the Home Run Derby, but he left a lasting impression – so much so that is has been talked about in every Derby since. During the opening round of the Home Run Derby, Josh Hamilton hit 28 home runs. He just kept crushing balls out of Yankee Stadium. It was a performance unparalleled. The Home Run Derby is as important to the game’s history as the All-Star Game itself. There was a television show during the 1960′s that pitted two players against each other in a mid-season home run showdown. That’s the importance of this exhibition. And Hamilton simply put on the greatest performance anyone had ever seen.
Hamilton went 1 for 3 with a stolen base in the actual game the next day, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he struck out each time up. Hamilton had done something no one else had done. His presence alone after that Home Run Derby was enough for the fans. They welcomed him in the hostile territory of Yankee Stadium like he was one of their own. That’s what this game means. Even if the players are concerned with injury – Hamilton hasn’t participated in a Home Run Derby since.
At 38 years old, Derek Jeter is making his 13th All-Star appearance. He was voted in by the fans because he is the face of a generation. He has represented greatness for the last 18 years much like Cal Ripken Jr. did before him. We don’t know what will happen in the game, but you can be sure the fans will be tingling with anticipation both in the park and at home when Jeter jogs out to his customary spot at shortstop and when he steps to the plate. Will he make an incredible flip throw home? Will he dive into the stands? Will he slap the ball to the opposite field like we’ve seen him do hundreds of times before?
Those are the questions that make every single All-Star Game great. There are changes compared with years past. There will be changes in the future. Yet, no matter the things that change, there’s always something that stays the same; these are the greatest players in the world, and the moments made each year will live on forever. So romanticize the moments, don’t romanticize the “way it was.”