Friday, July 19, 2013

The Midsummer Night's Classic

Thanks for the bailout. Signed, Citibank

First things first: all apologies to my ravenous vulturous readership for being out the last month. Your surrogate papi's been on that paper chase, try'na keep the lights on in this muhfucka. Try'na keep loaves on the table the shelves stacked with the latest J's, you know? Whatever & what have you. That's not the point. The point is KJ's back, and the springtime is nigh! I got my white jeans on. I'm all set to spend my days picking foxtails from my dogs' every orifice as my body traverses the diphenhydramine dose-response curve. Mostly, though, I'm fucking pumped to watch the Dodgers run an absolute train on the National League West. Seriously, dudes gotta have about a hundred twenty dubyas on deck this year. Y'all need to prepare yourselves for Donnie Baseball's boys in blue, for the resurgence of Becks, for the 50/50 season you laughed about all last year. Believe you best be ready for the wholehearted conversion of all the idiot Angels fans that never were. You know this dude's already got the championship champ on ice and the time off for that victory parade down Tinsletow..


Oh, wait.

Wait, what the fuck? You mean to tell me it's fucking summer already?? And not like the kind of summer that sneaks up on you when that old bitch Phil comes out and can't see his shadow so we're obligated to sooner call it summer even though we know gophers are not reliable barometers of meteorological shift and it's really not all that hot anyway. Ooh, no. It's the balls-and-back-stuck-to-the-seat-of-your-'96-Ford-Ranger-because-you're-rolling-'round-Riverside-with-the-windows-down-and-no-A/C-since-you're-either-too-broke-to-fix-it-or-too-cheap-to-use-it-since-you-saw-that-episode-of-MythBusters-where-they-were-like-fuck-yeah-windows-down!-and-gas-is-four-bucks-a-gallon-so-fuck-it-spoon-feed-pseudoscience-to-the-masses part of summer. That's where we're at. The ides of July.

Yeah, but even though July is back with a vengeance, continuing its campaign of melanocytic mutation and highlighting the pitfalls of exercising inextricable emotional investment in sports teams, the cruelest bastard of bastard months is not without its redeemable moments. July is, after all, owned by baseball. I guess other stuff, like, happens. Wimbledon is a thing some people like. Every couple years someone will die in amazingly awesome fashion in Pamplona. On the nearer side of the pond, there's the ocassional kerfuffle concerning an offseason American athlete in a major market. This year, Aaron Hernandez went all no pulp OJ on some dude and reminded white America why they shoulda pulled the trigger (ha) on a Brady jersey instead. Dwight Howard, in turn, made sure his HBIC game brought its A-game as he hit free agency and let Lakers n8n fellate his ego one last time before he ultimately took his talents to the income tax haven of Houston, TX. Even so, these are all but blips in the month's daily diet of baseball happenings, and seldom do they command even their own Sportscenter segment. Soon enough attention returns to second-half story lines, the trade deadline and, of course, the MLB All-Star Game.

I'm just going to say it: all all-star games are stupid. Seriously. They're awful. Every last one of them. The idea, itself, is admittedly rad. Get the best active players in any given sport on the field of play at the same time in an attempt to see said sport in its most ideal form. That's dope. The only thing better in theory would be to stage an exhibition between the greatest players of all time in an arena where the age-enforced deterioration of skill somehow did not apply, but that's some futuristic shit that I ain't even trying to fuck with. We got Nintendo to settle exactly those battles 'til Ted Williams comes back.

Anyway, when I was a kid I used to eat up that all-star shit. Every sport, every season my ass was seated somewhere in the national television audience for the proverbial clash of the titans. Shouldn't be too surprising, really. It's a nationally-televised event on basic cable featuring the best and biggest names in the game, many of whom I'd get to see outside the confines of the highlight reel exactly once per year. I was also like 12 years old and in full idolization mode, still harboring dreams of someday standing in the shoes of The Greats. (These dreams were only inflated by the fact that I was the first kid in my 'hood to go through puberty. There was like an ensuing three year stretch of time where I might as well have been Babe Ruth as far as the rest of the Victorville American Little League was concerned.) However, as a mid-twentysomething clinging so dubiously to a respectable body-mass index, I'm too often confronted with the cold, harsh realization that most of the better and exciting players in every sport are two-to-three years my junior. Though I'm aware my inability to hit an outside jumper or any kind of breaking ball make me ill-suited for professional sports, somewhere in the farthest reaches of my ego I still believe I should be manning center field in Chavez Ravine while Matt Kemp shovels shit for $15/hr plus benefits. Furthermore, when I do wanna wile out with my meek mill, I throw down on some deluxe sports package and gain access to every game (and every player) on any given day. So over time, the All-Star Game has gradually lost some of its luster, for sure.

Really, though, I think it's just because I got old enough to understand how stupid they are. I watch one now and I feel the same way I did when two years ago I tried to make it through a full episode of WWE professional "wrestling" but then quit because I started to feel a bit more homosexual than is typically to my liking.

Though the convening of big dicks is a tired exercise in every sport, the quote-unquote Midsummer Classic is at least the least so.

The NHL (the "H" stands for "Hockey") All-Star Game exists in a super vacuum. The only people that watch the game each year are Canadians, Americans in really cold parts of America, the players that weren't chosen, and the families of those that were. That's about it. It's unfortunate, but on the other hand, hockey's poor ratings have always pushed it to be the most inventive and flexible of professional sports. They instituted instant replay review in 1991. They implement rule changes mid-season when necessary. That mentality extends itself to their All-Star Game, where for the last 3 years team captains have selected players from a pool chosen by fans and writers, irrespective of Conference. The Game was immediately made more interesting. In fact, the team captain format was so dope that Major League Baseball snatched and used it that same year when they revamped their Home Run Derby (producing similarly memorable moments), arguably the NHL All-Star Game's greatest contribution to American entertainment.

As far as basketball is concerned, I can get down with the Three-Point Shootout and, especially, the Slam Dunk Contest. The dunk throwdown is basically the NBA's equivalent to the Home Run Derby, but with creativity at a premium. However, my issue -- and call it the true fallout of cutting art education in cash-strapped inner city schools -- is that dudes are getting kinda derivative. Though I got mad love for Blake Griffin, jumping over the hood of car ain't exactly flexing the right brain, you know? Like the dude just took the natural trajectory of some of his most vicious slams and realized he could squeeze a midsize sedan in there. C'mon, bruh! Personally, I'll take the innovators over that, any day. Gimme Jordan. Gimme 'Nique. Gimme Spud and, by all means, gimme fucking VINCE. Yo, I'll even take J-Rich as a contemporary pick for all you yungbluds out there.

As far as the actual All-Star Game, though, I'm good on that. It's terrible. The NBA ASG has basically become a version of the aforementioned Dunk Contest where players can be called for traveling    play defense abide loosely by a play-clock. It's essentially what every game would look like if the San Antonio Spurs weren't a team. I give it two, maybe three years before they roll a couple Optimas out in front of each basket and let the teams take turns goin' Blake. Seriously, though, do you know what the average team score has been over the last ten years in the NBA All-Star Game? I was going to make that a rhetorical question until I realized it was pretty easy to figure out. It's 135.8 points. One hundred thirty five points per team per game on average!! And it's gotten progressively more absurd each year over the last decade. This last February, over 300 points were scored and no overtimes were played. Ridiculous. I give that 5 Bill Russel frown faces.

Modern NBA All-Star Game? Dafuq outta here wit' that!!

Though I'd prefer not to, let's speak briefly about the NFL Pro-Bowl. The Pro-Bowl is the most pointless affair in all of sports. No one tackles, no one tries to block or return kicks, no one really shows up or gives a fuck. It's the only all-"star" game in a major sport that draws lower ratings than its regular season games. The legitimate studs opt out every year for fear of getting hurt (not that anyone can blame them), and the dudes that have no business being mentioned alongside them take their place and play mediocre, grab-ass football. This season's game had the highest turnout among quality players in ages only because it was widely speculated to be the final Pro Bowl. And I can't see why it shouldn't have been. It's meant to be an end-of-the-season accolade for the true gods of the gridiron. It should carry with it a trophy and a title and the freedom from forced powderpuffing on national television.

Tuesday night's Major League Baseball game is different from all of these. It's still pretty dumb, to be certain. But it's dumb for a different reason. At it's core it has the potential to be a great game and even greater entertainment. Surrounding the game are the intentionally goofy Celebrity Softball Game, the unintentionally cornball legend swell of the Home Run Derby and the increasingly popular and pertinent Futures Game brandishing the talent of tomorrow. However, aside from its extracurricular aspects, the Game itself exists as a worthy centerpiece. It is and has always been the only all-star enterprise of any merit, for though baseball is certainly a team sport, it is structured around the mano y mano encounter forced between the batter and pitcher. Every at-bat generates a matchup of greats. Every pitch posits the comparative superiority of one or the other. That's the whole point of staging this sort of thing.

The real problem with the MLB All-Star Game is that it has a confused identity and incongruous branding. It's confused about what it wants to be and has lost site of what, at the end of the day, it ultimately is. If you've watched a half-inning of baseball in the past month in a half, you've been reminded probably twice that the All-Star Game is the "fans' game." It's not the fans' game. It's not the writers' game, neither. This shit belongs to the players. It's the players' game that caters to the enjoyment of the fans and writers. One of the things that's frequently overlooked when comparecontrasting all-star games in different sports is that only baseball's serves a defined purpose, and that purpose is for the direct benefit of the guys taking the field every day. So far this season each baseball team has played 95 games give-or-take. That's more than the Average Joe baseball burnout played in their entire prep career... in a little over half a professional season. It's referred to as the All-Star Break for a reason. It's a chance to rest and recharge. For the players that are good enough to make it (I'll get to that), it culminates in a game that doesn't really matter. For the living legends, it's a chance to be praised by all for the totality of their accomplishments. When allowed to exist and prosper in that realm, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game is perfect.

In recent years, however, the MLB has invigorated the nonsense notion that this summertime spectacle is of, by and for the fan community. Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan, and I'm flattered, but I'm also dismayed by the immediate drawbacks of making that distinction.

The first and most obvious is what arose from Commissioner Bud Selig's misreading of the now infamous 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, where mismanagement and a perceived obligation to get every player into the game resulted in both the American and National League teams running out of pitchers when the A.L. unexpectedly failed to win in 9 innings. The game was called in a 7-7 tie in the 11th. Fans subsequently soaked the field in Miller High Life, and Selig soon thereafter pushed for the current system, wherein the winning league is awarded invaluable home-field advantage for the World Series. The determination that the game needed competitive context is, of course, quite errant. The fact that the game is an exhibition (and, as such, is prone to heightened showmanship and abnormal sportsmanship) has never meant it wasn't played seriously by professional athletes that want to win anytime they toe the rubber or dig into the box, even if only for pride.

(Example: In 1971, Reggie Jackson launched one of the longest home runs of all time. Shit probably would have landed in Lake Erie. Five whole years later, Dock Ellis returned the favor by beaning a bespectacled Jackson in the face, shattering the dude's glasses and putting him in the hospital. Ellis inquired only if Mr. October "was dead" and said when asked afterward that he had "owed him one.")

However, after the mishap in Milwaukee the focus of the event shifted awkwardly from the players to the fans. Throughout the long history of the MLB All-Star Game, the onus was on the fans to come to the game (or tune in on TV) and enjoy themselves. It was assumed that the entertainment quotient was fulfilled by the very definition of the All-Star Game, in the uniqueness and grandeur that comes with concentrating so much otherworldly talent onto one field of play. Now, though, that ain't enough. Now the attendees must be treated to a game that "matters" with an outcome of consequence. Thus, the ASG exists in this strange limbo where it's played not in celebration of the sport, but for something everyone on the field agrees is very important. If that were the case in and of itself, I wouldn't see all that much harm in it considering home-field advantage was previously just alternated between the leagues each year (lame). The problem comes in the disconnect between how it's played and what it's played for.

To understand this, you must look no further than the two biggest storylines coming into last night's game: the hotly-debated all-star worthiness of my man, the Havana Hammer, Yasiel Puig and the decision not to start 2011 Cy Young winner and perennial Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw for the National League.

Puigmode: the new Beastmode

Yasiel Puig should have started the season in the major leagues. At the very least, he should have been called up long before he finally was on June 3rd. Everyone knows that now. In the month-and-a-half since, he has batted .400, maintained an OPS over 1.000 (P.S. that's really good), and cemented himself as the most valuable player on a Dodgers club that looked all but ready to throw in the towel. Aside from sheer baseball ability, the guy radiates Cuban bravado (the 6th tool) and is arguably the most mesmerizing player in baseball. He's an all-star in every sense of the term. His teammate has already proven himself to be of sufficient caliber in his own right, pitching in three consecutive all-star games and allowing 0 earned runs in each. At the break this year, he leads the league in batting average against, ERA and shutouts. He's working on his third-consecutive National League ERA crown (the first since Greg Maddux to accomplish such a feat).

Logic would dictate that if the game were really being played to win, Kershaw would have thrown 8 innings (alright, at least 4) and Puig would have started in right field. It's as simple as that. That's not what happened.

National League manager Bruce Bochy (who moonlights as manager of the basement-dwelling San Francisco Giants, the historical and divisional rival of the Dodgers) chose not to give a roster spot to Puig, reciting the old guard's line about not having paid his dues. He also selected New York Mets rookie pitcher Matt Harvey over Kershaw (known Giant slayer), alluding to Harvey's recent dominance and role as the home-crowd favorite. Bochy has been in the game forever, and he knows his reasoning is contradictory as shit. The problem is that Bruce Bochy is not enough like opposing all-star manager Jim Leyland who is not enough like legendary all-star manager Tommy Lasorda.  The correct response to press inquiries regarding Bochy's managerial snubs of rival players should have been along the lines of "Fuck the fucking Dodgers." I'd have considered that fair.

That's because though Bruce Bruce didn't do his part to get the best players in the best positions and win the ball game (and they didn't), he's ultimately only responsible for a few spots on the roster. For the most part he doesn't build the team. Which of course leads me to the biggest issue with the "fans' game": fan voting.

Fan voting is the absolute lousiest, most detrimental aspect of baseball's all-star game. Allowing raving, beer-swilling, hotdog-eviscerating homers to determine the all-star rosters is no wiser than letting them elect the president or interpret the law. There is a natural tendency (fueled by the individual ball clubs) to vote, vote, vote for the home team. Additionally, every idiot is allowed to cast as many as 25 (read: infinity) full ballots. The process effectively turns into a popularity contest where undeserving bums like the Orioles' J.J. Hardy sneak not just onto the team but into the starting lineup. Played out busters like Brandon Phillips get the start over truly underrated guys like Matt Carpenter that are putting up career numbers. The Oakland Athletics receive fewer all-star nods than the San Francisco Giants, despite the former being tied for first in their division and the latter nearing last in theirs. It's pretty bad, though not unprecedentedly so. Since fan voting started in 1947, there have been at least three instances of ballot box stuffing, the first and most egregious of which occurred a mere ten years later and resulted in the exclusion of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in favor of a couple of Cincinnati Reds you've never heard of. It also resulted in a rescission of voting rights for over a decade.

This, combined with the league mandate that all major league teams have at least one representative at the All-Star Game, ensures that there are always at least a couple players taking part in the festivities that everyone knows aren't quiiiiiiiiite as good as the rest. Like Houston Astros catcher Juan Castro is aiight and all, but the only way dude could be confused as elite is by playing in a lineup full of players straddling the Mendoza line. It really flies in the face of baseball's stated aim of making the game excessively competitive. It also invalidates Bochy's nonsensical implication that any roster substitutions would be net negative. If I'm a manager, I want the best, most dynamic players on my team. As a fan I can't say I want much different. I'm certainly not trying to see A.J. or Mark Ellis' non-related asses in the All-Star Game just because they're Dodgers. Simply put, the best players should play. If that means Everth Cabrera or Travis Wood aren't there to make people in San Diego and North Side Chicago feel better about their lost seasons, then that's how it goes. If it means the fans lose their right to field the team (at least without the equally weighted consideration of players, coaches and baseball writers), so be it. Won't be the first time.

Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game displayed a lot of what makes it superior to similar showcases in other sports. A comingling of top-tier talents, a competition amongst veterans and phenoms that somehow still manages to celebrate the game more than it does the individuals than play in it. It's one of our oldest summertime traditions in this country for this reason. Though, at some point we shifted away from that basic principle and started celebrating the fan, instead. That was a misstep. Tying the result of the All-Star Game to the World Series wasn't the worst decision on the planet. But considering that the best players aren't always selected and that those who are don't play any harder than they would anyway, I can't help but feel like the move toward seriousness and consequence came at a detriment to the event as a whole. I feel the MLB All-Star Game was better as pure exhibition. I think that in the end there is a place for levity in one game per year in a sport that gives us 162 more chances not to.