Even as an exhibition, All-Star Game remains an impressive, competitive affair

0:43 | Major League Baseball
AL prevails over NL in 2017 MLB All-Star Game, Robinson Cano wins MVP
Wednesday July 12th, 2017

MIAMI — Pride still matters. The baseball All-Star Game, stripped years ago of fierce league identities because of interleague play, and this year of meaning because World Series home field advantage no longer is on the line, still maintained its status Tuesday night as the most well-played of all-star events. This time the motivation was the reservoir of pride within each player. It was easy to spot.

In a game that didn’t count, outfielders Bryce Harper and Justin Upton both left their feet to make sterling defensive plays; Mookie Betts heaved a strike to throw out a hustling Nolan Arenado; Daniel Murphy, Josh Harrison, Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado all dove in vain trying to make plays; Carlos Martinez, Dellin Betances and Craig Kimbrel all threw 100 miles an hour, pitchers pumped fists when they worked out of jams; and the dugouts were packed with players on the top step right down to the last out of a 10-inning, 2–1 win for the American League.

“I like the fight the players played with,” Harper said. “Everybody was trying to win the game.”

The 88th All-Star Game reminded us this is just an exhibition. It should be fun. It has room for pranks like the one Nelson Cruz staged, in which he pulled out his phone in the batter’s box and asked catcher Yadier Molina to snap a picture of him and umpire Joe West. No phones in the dugout, the players were told, so Cruz channeled his inner smart-aleck teenager to decide, “Well, you didn’t say no phones at home plate.” Touche.

But let’s not forget that the All-Star Game should also be an exhibition of good baseball, and this one was. Say what you want about the 14-year run of “This Time it Counts”—like it, love it or question it for the weird hybrid to have something important on the line while managers still ran games with bloated rosters as if it were a game of kickball at recess. But what that run did was snap some needed crispness back into the game. Players became reconditioned to sticking around, rather that fleeing early to their private jets, and to lean more toward real hardball than a yukfest.

Here’s hoping that retraining has a long-term effect. The defense alone—which you don’t see at regular-season standards in other sporting All-Star events—gave evidence last night that the players still care about how they play, even with nothing on the line.

MLB
Robinson Cano's home run propels American League to fifth straight All-Star Game victory

Now, if you had issues with the entertainment value of the game, that’s another matter entirely—because this All-Star Game perfectly represented what baseball has become. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner gave proper context to the evening.

“Let’s see,” he said as he checked the accounting tables in his head, “22 strikeouts [actually, 23], two home runs, and what must have been 10 walks, or that’s what it seemed like [actually six]. Those are the three true outcomes (TTO). So I would say that’s appropriate, huh?”

Yes, sir. Of the 79 hitters who came to the plate, 31 of them either struck out, walked or hit a home run—a rate of 39.2% in which the ball was not put in play.

Now think about the first half of this baseball season. The rate of the three true outcomes is 33.4%. That would be the highest such percentage in baseball history, topping the 32.3% from … last year. Aaron Judge, the most celebrated player in baseball, has a TTO percentage of 54.1, trailing only Joey Gallo (58.4).

The American League won the game last night even though their hitters struck out 14 times, which used to signal almost certain defeat. This season teams have won a game with 14 or more strikeouts 40 times. That’s more times—in just half a season—than every season in baseball history up to 2012.

So if you didn’t like so few balls in play last night, don’t complain about the All-Star Game. That’s just how the game is played these days. Hopefully it will reverse course, but this is what we have for now. At least the players didn’t dawdle. They hacked at first pitches, nobody tried to steal signs from second base (which induces time-killing paranoia), neither team bothered with defensive shifts, and even though the game included 18 pitchers, there were no mid-inning pitching changes and no delay-tactic trips to the mound. The game moved at a good pace.

There’s a chance that over time the players might get lazy with this format and turn the game into a sloppy, back-slapping church picnic softball game. But if what you saw last night is the future of the All-Star Game, then there remains something on the line in these games after all.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

*****

Reds first baseman Joey Votto famously promised teammate Zack Cozart a donkey if he made the All-Star Game as a starter. The fans voted in Cozart, and Votto is delivering on his promise this week.

“It’s going to my mom’s house in Tennessee,” said Cozart, a donkey aficionado if there can be such a thing. “She’s got room for it for now.”

Votto continued his giving ways with his teammate last night. Cozart, who turns 32 next month, was an All-Star for the first time. So when Cozart singled for his first All-Star hit, Votto wanted to retrieve the baseball as a keepsake for him.

One problem: the ball stayed in play, until the next batter, Charlie Blackmon, fouled it off down the rightfield line, apparently gone for good.

Votto was undeterred. He autographed two baseballs and grabbed one his bats, gave the bounty to a bat boy, and instructed him to take the balls and bat to whatever fan near the rightfield line caught Blackmon’s foul ball in return for the baseball from Cozart’s hit. The bat boy dutifully executed his mission after the top of the fourth inning. He made the trade and returned with the baseball to Votto, who eventually turned it over to Cozart.

Chalk up two assists for Votto this week when it comes to taking care of his teammate: a donkey and a keepsake baseball.

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