Column: MLB All-Star Game Now An ExhibitionJuly 20, 2017

Column: MLB All-Star Game Now An ExhibitionThe MLB All-Star Game is now the equal of its counterparts in the NFL, NBA and NHL – an exhibition, not a game.

Last week baseball’s best players gathered in Miami for the sport’s annual Mid-Summer Classic. Once the game began, it was obvious the participants were more focused on having fun than the score. For the previous 14 seasons, the game meant something: The winning league earned home-field advantage in the World Series. Almost everyone – fans, players, television and MLB – seemed to embrace the new format. Bud Selig may have been an exception.

The former commissioner must have cringed as he watched the game from the comfort of his living room. It was Selig who, in 2003, instituted the format designed to make the game more meaningful. Selig dictated the change after the previous year’s game ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings because teams ran out of pitchers. Who can forget the image of Selig, a pained expression on his face, huddling with the managers when they gave him the news?

The embarrassment was accentuated because the game was played in Milwaukee, home to Selig’s former club, in a ballpark he had spent years lobbying for. Selig thought making the game “count” would change how managers utilized their rosters and lead to increased fan interest. But fans never embraced the new format, perhaps because it was roundly criticized by the media. Those who ridiculed Selig and his creation conveniently ignored something even more ridiculous. Prior to 2003, home field in the Fall Classic was alternated between the leagues regardless of a team’s regular season record.

Players didn’t like Selig’s rule either, because during negotiations on the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement they asked that it be eliminated, and MLB acquiesced. Home field for the World Series this year and for the foreseeable future will now go to the team with the best regular season record. That’s consistent with the NBA and the NHL. The NFL plays its Super Bowl on neutral turf. For the record, the American League went 11-3 in the All-Star Game while the Selig rule was in effect. But their dominance in the Mid-Summer Classic did not carry over to the World Series, where the National League was 8-6 over the same span.

This year’s hijinks included Seattle’s Nelson Cruz pulling a phone out of his back pocket prior to stepping into the batter’s box and asking a surprised Yadier Molina, the NL catcher, to snap a photo of him with home plate umpire Joe West. Later, after Molina hit a game-tying home run, he received a high-five and glove slap from Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor as he rounded the bases. Houston outfielder George Springer and Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper were interviewed by the Fox broadcast crew while playing the field. Alex Rodriguez, a member of the Fox team, was on-field conducting interviews between innings.

Cruz’ photo was a hit on social media even if he went hitless in two at bats. Perhaps the new emphasis on “exhibition” rather than “game” was the reason for an eight percent bump in viewership over last year.

Gone are the days when managers played to win and starters played the entire game. Now, the goal is to mimic a Little League game - insert every player into the lineup. That may be appropriate, given that fans vote for the starters. The players were clearly relaxed during the game and maybe that’s as it should be. There’s plenty of pressure on them every day of the season and fans rarely get to see their human side. Minor League Baseball executive Mike Veeck, son of legendary promoter Bill Veeck and a promotional genius in his own right, authored a book on having fun in the workplace titled “Fun is Good.” That would be an appropriate motto for MLB’s annual exhibition, where there’s no longer anything at stake. The new format may not please everyone, but the emphasis is now on fun, camaraderie and entertainment.