Friday, 10 July 2015

Why I Love the All-Star Game

To most Brits, the concept of an All-Star Game is rather strange. At best, the majority views it as a wholly unnecessary waste of time; at worst, the hardline haters see it as a deeply stupid exercise in self-congratulation. Yet, as a diehard baseball fan, and an Englishman who has dedicated more than a decade to understanding and appreciating this fine game, I'm totally besotted by the All-Star Game. It's always been one of my favourite events on the sporting calendar.

The whole notion is just so romantic, as the greatest superstars take a break from the rigours of everyday play to converge on a designated city and perform in a grand showcase for the watching masses. I admire the goodnatured spirit in which the contest is played; the way everybody loosens the collar, relaxes for an evening, and just enjoyed the inherent spectacle that baseball provides.

On a personal level, the All-Star Game is an annual link back to my baseball-watching childhood. Each year, when watching the Midsummer Classic, I'm instantly transported back to my youth, watching in the dead of British night on a small, portable TV. It's a pertinent reminder of my original baseball heroes, and the stars who illuminated this beautiful game when it first captivated my fertile mind at the age of ten.

I used to record the All-Star Game as broadcasted by Channel Five here in the UK, then devour it whole when returning from school the following day. I still have a battered VHS tape somewhere containing grainy footage of the 2007 Game, delivered live from San Francisco by Jonny Gould and Josh Chetwynd, the legendary presenters of baseball coverage in our country. The jumpy footage of David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr, back when they were younger and brighter, is still something I cherish dearly. Of course, I could find it in crystal clear HD online easy enough, but there's still something magical about that original video tape, and that initial memory. It's somehow more authentic, and more descriptive of a joyous baseball epoch.

In this regard, my greatest All-Star Game memory is from 2008, when old Yankee Stadium staged the event in its final year before demolition. Josh Hamilton put on a sensational show in the accompanying Home Run Derby, etching his name into the cathedral's folklore by slamming 28 first round homers, then the American League proceeded to win a tense game before 55,632 enthralled fans in the Bronx. The whole showcase made the hairs stand on end, the spine tingle. For me, it was the last time it felt like the entire world was watching, engrossed in baseball from its most famous, twinkling citadel. Quite frankly, I still dream about being there in person.

Similarly, if ever a baseball time machine were invented, July 6th 1933 at Comiskey Park, Chicago would be pretty high on my list of favourable dates and destinations. That was the time and setting for the very first All-Star Game in the history of world professional sports, between Major League Baseball's American and National Leagues. With no inter-league play other than the World Series during that era, the All-Star Game was a novel showcase, offering a wonderful glimpse at the mingling heroes of a nation. Babe Ruth christened the event with the first home run in All-Star Game history, which, to me, imbues the event with an intoxicating heritage. The Ruthian seal of approval is extremely powerful, offering today's stars the rare opportunity to equal a feat authored by the greatest player who ever lived. I find that totally compelling.

Moreover, some of the finest moments in the baseball annals have been authored in the All-Star Game. Carl Hubbell, the New York Giants' pitcher, striking out Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin consecutively in 1934, for instance, or Ted Williams launching a game-winning, three-run homer in 1941. How about Pedro Martinez imitating Hubbell by striking out five of the six batters he faced in 1999? Or the final All-Star Game appearance of Mariano Rivera, so drenched in poetry.

In recent years, the event has lost some of its lustre. Even ardent traditionalists like myself would admit that. Between home field advantage for the World Series depending on the outcome, to players withdrawing or being selected due to ludicrous fan voting, and on to all thirty teams being represented, the Midsummer Classic has suffered something of an identity crisis of late. But I still admire its spirit, respect its concept and love its history.

This year, natives may not watch the All-Star Game from the bland environs of Cincinnati, and the British mainstream will still dismiss the event as typical American gluttony, but, as ever, my alarm will be set for 1am, ready for the annual feast of midsummer baseball heaven.

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