All-Star moments are what it's about

JOHN EISENBERG

July 16, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN DIEGO -- Upon making the All-Star team for the first time in 1988, infielder Gary Gaetti was asked to assess the thrill. "It's right up there with lobster," he said.

Whitey Herzog was the National League manager that year. He said he would rather go fishing. "The only bad thing about winning the pennant," he said, "is having to manage the All-Star team the next year."

So it goes with the baseball All-Star Game, which, unlike any other major sporting event, requires players, officials and fans to make a choice: Am I buying into this or not?

Judging from the clamor for tickets, the enormous television audience and the general hullabaloo, it would appear most people are buying. But as we embark on a year of building up to the 1993 game at Camden Yards, it is worth reviewing the choice offered by the biggest sporting event to hit Baltimore since the 1983 World Series.

First off, understand that the game is as outdated as a World's Fair or a newsboy hawking "extras" on a street corner. And it thrives anyway.

The game was dreamed up in 1933 by Arch Ward, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, at a time when a) players rarely jumped leagues, and b) most fans in American League cities knew of National Leaguers only from the newspapers, and vice versa. Bringing the best of the leagues together was a thrill and a mystery. Could Babe Ruth hit Dizzy Dean? Wow, let's find out.

Obviously, time, television and baseball's evolution have eroded much of the original thrill. Fans see players every day on television, to the point of gross overexposure. And players constantly jump leagues. Almost a quarter of this year's 56 All-Stars have played in both leagues. Can Fred McGriff hit Dennis Eckersley? Look it up, he already has. Nothing mysterious there.

But see, this is where you make a choice, decide whether to invest a tingle or three. Consider a moment in the first inning of the Americans' 13-6 win Tuesday:

There was one out and runners on second and first, and Joe Carter singled to center. The runner on second, Wade Boggs, ran to third and stopped. Then the realization hit the 58,000 fans in Jack Murphy Stadium: Mark McGwire, this year's home run monster, was coming up with the bases loaded. Facing Tom Glavine, baseball's best pitcher the past two seasons.

Now, let's be honest. As intriguing as this confrontation promised to be, it lacked a soul. Neither player had anything to lose; it was just an exhibition. Neither could possibly approach this with the same determination and concentration of a big regular-season at-bat. As Glavine said later, it "didn't really matter" that he wound up giving up five runs and nine hits.

But none of that seemed to matter Tuesday night. A palpable buzz sounded in the seats as McGwire approached the plate. He had, after all, hit 12 balls out of the park in a home-run-hitting contest the day before. Maybe Whitey Herzog and the literalists were not buying, but these 58,000 fans were.

And why not? It was not as if McGwire and Glavine were faking it. They were certainly going to try, which meant the game's best power stroke matched against the game's best location pitcher.

No, it was not particularly important, but was it worth watching on a hot summer night? Sure. It was fun. You felt a tingle in your toes. It was a "moment." (McGwire singled.)

That is All-Star Game spectating today: trolling for moments.

You aren't as likely to remember who wins as an at-bat, a big hit, a moment. Three years ago was Bo Jackson's leadoff homer. Last year was Cal Ripken's remarkable show in the home-run-hitting contest. There are many down through All-Star history. Reggie off the light tower in Detroit. Rose running into Fosse. Something always seems to happen.

And now you get the home-run-hitting contest, which is a ball, and, of course, the stargazing fantasy that is the pre-game introductions. "They're the best part, all that talent together on one field," said the Padres' Tony Gwynn. "It's the time to let your imagination run wild. The game pales by comparison."

But the game is not bad either, as long as you're buying -- and not taking it too seriously. Such is the essence of the All-Star Game these days: You can make of it what you want.

It is up to you. You can buy into McGwire-Glavine "moments" as unique, or play Scrooge and dismiss them as part of a basically disposable exhibition. But be warned: If you choose not to buy when the game comes to Camden Yards next year, you will miss out. As Gwynn said late Tuesday, "No matter what happens, this is always fun."

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