A showcase game is no longer enough fans want the whole show 1993 ALL-STAR GAME July 13, Baltimore

JOHN EISENBERG

July 14, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

There was Earl Weaver back in his baseball formal wear Monday afternoon after the old-timers' game: underwear, beer, cigs. The celebrity home run contest was running live on a TV over his locker.

Earl looked up and studied the screen, sipping from a beer. Someone was taking cuts.

"Who in the world is that?" Earl rasped.

"That's Flo-Jo," someone said.

Sorry, not good enough. "Who?" Earl said. "What?"

"Florence Griffith Joyner. The Olympic runner. The gold medalist."

"Oh," Earl said. "Yeah."

He watched her take another swing, then turned back to his locker, shook his head and laughed.

"I mean," he said. "is this deal unbelievable or what?"

Meaning the All-Star Game, of course. The whole show. The ballplayers. The home runs. The stargazing. Oh, and the game.

"We used to just show up and play ball, you know," he said.

And it used to be enough. In the beginning, and for the longest time, the All-Star Game was meant for a sporting world without TV or shoe campaigns or highlights available on five channels every night.

Whatever Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward had in mind when he put together the first game for the 1933 World's Fair, what it quickly evolved into was a piece of baseball democracy.

A chance for fans in National League cities to see Ruth and Gehrig, the icons of the day, about whom they had only read. Or fans in American League cities getting a chance to see, say, Dizzy Dean.

This was their only chance, their only opportunity to see the names from the other league, the names that were just fiction to them, in a way. When else would Willie Mays come to Cleveland?

But then there was TV and taped highlights and everyone could see all the players all the time, and, like a lot of things, the All-Star Game wasn't quite the same.

There were still tingles for sale, particularly during pre-game introductions, when the sheer drama of the gathering of talent was most apparent. But the game was something of an anticlimax. No longer was it such a thrill to see Mantle run the bases or Mays circle a fly.

You would think that such would be particularly true today, with cable having overexposed baseball to the point that fans are barely interested in watching teams other than their own, a sad fact quantified by the dwindling ratings of national games.

But the All-Star Game is still thriving today. Still a thrill.

There are plenty of things wrong with baseball today -- fans feeling disconnected, teams stretched to the financial breaking point, the lack of leadership -- but the All-Star Game isn't one.

The game is still something of an anticlimax. As terrific as it was to see Barry Bonds in Camden Yards, the moment couldn't help but be watered down by the daily assault of Bondsism on TV.

It doesn't matter, though, because of what the event has become: Much more than just a game. A celebration of the game. FanFest, the workout day, the home runs, the game -- it all comes together as a piece of baseball dessert, sweet and uncluttered and irresistible.

As Cal Ripken says, fans today want a show along with their ballgame. They want entertainment. A moment or three. More than just a good game and a score card.

Anyone lamenting that, the glitz, the necessity of style accompanying the substance, is simply out of step. Just as the game Arch Ward invented was right for then, today's All-Star Game is right for now.

Could there be a more effective validation than Monday's workout day at Camden Yards? Was that a blast or what? (No pun intended.) Huge home runs, a warehouse strike, Brooks turning a 5-4-3, a last call for Reggie, Michael Jordan right here in Charm City. . . how

could last night's game top all that?

Sure, it's true that baseball stole the idea for the All-Star Workout from the NBA, which came up with it a decade ago, and watched it grow in stature along with the league. But baseball shouldn't be ashamed of pirating a concept. The sport has had a terrible time marketing itself. This is one time it's on the cutting edge, and look at the results.

The game is still the ultimate lure, of course. It has to be. And even if it's guilty of being a little quiet, it's still a sight. It's a chance for New Yorkers to see Gooden against Mattingly, or fans around the country to check out Glavine's stuff against Olerud.

Admit it: the sight of John Kruk and Darren Daulton and the other nut-ball Phillies at Camden Yards, as well as the other National Leaguers, was still pretty cool.

"Hey," Weaver said, "the whole deal is pretty fantastic."

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