Baseball's All-Star Game meant a great deal to me when I was a young fan.
So it saddens me to see what an embattled institution it's become. The numbers are undeniable. As SI.com's Richard Deitsch noted Monday, last year’s television audience of 11 million was down 61 percent from the 28 million who watched in 1985.
That’s a meaningful comparison for me, because 1985 lay right in the heart of my romance with the midsummer classic. I was 9 years old and obsessed with the sport. Baseball books cluttered the shelves in my room, and I loved nothing better than sifting through my boxes and boxes of baseball cards.
Players I’d never seen in person lived in my imagination through the statistics I memorized and the stories I read again and again. I carried strong feelings about Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Tim Raines despite the fact I hardly ever watched them, even on television.
That’s where the All-Star Game came in. It was my one chance every year to see all those National League guys gather on the same field as Cal Ripken Jr., Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs.
When I was in middle school, the game generally fell during a weeks I was at sleep-away baseball camp. We always did some little activity after dinner, and I remember sprinting from that activity to the one place at camp where we could watch television. I needed to have the best seat possible to watch these untouchable stars line up on the field before first pitch.
I can’t emphasize enough what a role the exhibition played in baseball lore. I could recite the five straight Hall of Famers that Carl Hubbell struck out in 1934 — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. I could tell you how Ted Williams won the 1941 game with a homer in the bottom of the ninth. I listened in awe as my godfather described how Reggie Jackson’s blast was still rising when it caromed off the roof at Tiger Stadium.
I’ll never forget watching Bo Jackson homer to center in his first All-Star at-bat. I’ll never forget sitting in the left-field stands at Camden Yards as Juan Gonzalez’s moon shots soared above me and clanged off the second-deck facade during the 1993 home-run contest.
I was a bit older then, but my teenage cynicism faded at the idea of seeing Barry Bonds in person for the first time or watching Juan Gone and Ken Griffey Jr. take aim at the deepest corners of our home park.
The All-Star Game was simply immense.
And now it isn’t.
I was one of the 17 million baseball fans who watched in 1985 and didn’t in 2013. Tonight, I’ll probably click right by the game and watch an episode of “The Americans” I have saved on the DVR.
This isn’t a cranky old guy rant, but the All-Star Game is a clear victim of this world of more we now occupy. If I want to watch Clayton Kershaw pitch or Troy Tulowitzki play shortstop or Giancarlo Stanton blast the ball 450 feet, all I have to do is flip on ESPN or MLB Network. They’ll be on soon enough.
Better yet, NL guys come to Baltimore every year for interleague play. I’m not against the interleague slate. Baseball is about daily entertainment more than the one big spectacle. So any innovation that creates more intriguing matchups over the course of your home team’s schedule is, on balance, a good thing.
But that special otherness I associated with the All-Star Game? Gone.
It’s no longer an event that draws me, or apparently millions of other people, away from the ridiculous array of entertainment options now at out fingertips. And it’s hard to see how that will change. Hanging home-field advantage on the result sure didn’t do the trick.
None of this is to say Baltimore fans should feel blasé about the game possibly returning to Camden Yards in 2016. It’s still a very cool live event, with the likes of Stanton and Yoenis Cespedes lighting up the sky in the Home Run Derby and all the fan events around the on-field action.
I sincerely hope some kid like me is sitting in the leftfield stands two summers from now with his eyes growing wide as the home runs cut the air above his head.
I just wonder if it will all feel a little less remarkable.