All-Star Game Opt-Outs Dim Spotlight on MLB's Brightest Stars

The Midsummer Classic should be a who’s who of the game; instead, at times, it was more of a who’s that.
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DENVER — Shohei Ohtani played two positions Tuesday. The way the All-Star Game is going, next year he may have to play nine. 

Fourteen players opted out of participating in this year’s Midsummer Classic, second-most of all time. (There were 16 in 2011; the next year, the collective bargaining agreement made participation largely mandatory.) The league’s showcase event should be a who’s who of the game; instead, at times, it was more of a who’s that. 

In many cases the absences were legitimate: Braves right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his right ACL on Saturday, and although he lobbied to fly to Colorado, anyway, doctors grounded him. Angels center fielder Mike Trout has been on the injured list since May 17 with a strained right calf muscle. Giants catcher Buster Posey sustained a bone bruise to his left thumb on July 4 and hasn’t played since.

But other explanations raised eyebrows across the sport. All four Astros—second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, left fielder Michael Brantley and closer Ryan Pressly—bailed on the first All-Star Game since the world learned of their 2017 cheating system, citing an evolving series of excuses. Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts homered Saturday and Sunday but said he had to miss this week because of what he called “nagging” injuries. Mets ace Jacob deGrom said he wanted to “take that time and just enjoy it with my family.” 

You never know what is going on with people, especially as we all continue to weather a pandemic. Still, the result of all these opt-outs was that anyone who wanted to see those stars had to walk outside the stadium to look at the banners hanging across Blake Street. In a reversal of 2020, the fans were real and the players were cardboard. 

“I’m not touching that,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said of the topic, but many of his fellow All-Stars did. 

“To be able to come to the All-Star Game, it should be a privilege,” said Twins DH Nelson Cruz, who made his seventh team and said he has never considered not attending. “I don’t think it should be a question if you want to come or not.”

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was inactive Tuesday—and replaced on the roster—because he threw 129 pitches Saturday. But he made the trip, anyway.

“Even if I’m not going to pitch,’’ he said, “I think it’s part of our responsibility to come and answer questions, and perform if we’re able to, and represent the brand of the game. If you get elected to this by your peers, in my opinion, you can show up. If you’re not injured, it’s something you should probably do.’’

And Ohtani, the star of the week, was sanguine about what the week had in store for him—he participated in the Home Run Derby on Monday, then started at pitcher and at DH on Tuesday—but said he never considered opting out. “I'm expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted after these two days, but there's a lot of people that want to watch it and I want to make those guys happy,” he said Monday. “That's why I'm going to do it.”

So what can the league and the union do to make more players see things the way Ohtani does?

Shohei Ohtani not only started on the mound for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game, but he also hit leadoff after competing in the Home Run Derby on Monday.

Shohei Ohtani not only started on the mound for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game, but he also hit leadoff after competing in the Home Run Derby on Monday.

Commissioner Rob Manfred alluded to punishment. “We have a basic agreement provision that [says that], with certain narrow exceptions, participation in the All-Star Game is mandatory,” he said. “We negotiated for that provision because we think it's important for our fans to see our very, very best players at the All-Star Game.” He added that in the coming days, the league intended to review the opt-outs’ excuses. “We bargained for that [provision] and we intend to enforce that,” he said. 

That process could get messy, though. The CBA does not provide penalties for players who fudge their doctors' notes. MLB’s only recourse would be to file a grievance and request damages. Given how tense the relationship between the league and the union already is, the league is unlikely to waste a bullet fighting this particular battle. 

The league could also introduce other provisions: Players could withdraw from consideration in spring training if they prefer not to participate, as ESPN’s Buster Olney proposed last week. Many players’ contracts award them bonuses for making the All-Star roster; these could be adjusted to pay them only if they attend the game. Players who opt out of the game could forfeit the All-Star designation. (In all cases, this should apply only to attendance for the festivities, not availability for the game. Nationals left fielder Kyle Schwarber, for instance, strained his right hamstring on July 3 and has not played since, but he still flew to Colorado, giving fans a chance to see him at media day and on the field during the Home Run Derby.)

Those are sticks. Players suggest a variety of carrots.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto would like to see an All-Star weeklong break, rather than four days. “I think that would help a lot,” he said. “If you extended the break a little bit so guys that came to the All-Star Game still got—I mean, I’m going to fly home on Wednesday. I have basically Thursday off and that’s it.”

Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos is a first-time All-Star, so for him the choice to attend was easy. Still, he knows what he is sacrificing. “If I'm going to say that I'm not a little bit bummed that I don't have four unbothered days to be a dad and a husband and a brother, I'd be lying,” he said. 

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner pointed to players’ wallets. “I know they paid for the Home Run Derby to get guys to do that,” he said. (Mets first baseman Pete Alonso was awarded $1 million for winning the Derby on Monday. He will make $676,775 in salary this year.) “Maybe if they did some kind of incentive that way, they could encourage guys to come.”

Realmuto agreed—but on a condition. “It would have to be something pretty good, because most of the guys who make the All-Star team are pretty well-off,” he said. “Gift bags aren’t gonna cut it.”

Maybe no financial incentive would. Maybe the league and the union instead should reframe the event: You come because the guys before you did, and so there remains enough interest in the game that the guys after you can, too. Ohtani put on a show this week. But he might deserve more credit for showing up. 

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