All-Star shame

Bud Selig’s decision to call the All-Star Game is such an unmitigated disaster that it almost boggles the mind to think how he thought he could possibly get away with it. This decision upsets me more than the strike talk and steroid allegations.

Labor problems I can understand. The owners believe they can’t survive unless there’s some kind of salary cap and revenue sharing. The players think the owners are lying and, more importantly, don’t think they can lose. All of this is ugly, sure, and another “work” stoppage (ahem, it’s a “play” stoppage, actually — and that’s not merely a semantic difference) would bring me great sadness. And while it would affect the game in the most obvious way, the roots of the problem lie beyond the game itself and belong in the realm of industrial and labor economics.

How can I get angry about the economic realities of the game and the incentives each side faces to keep fighting and not give in to the other side? Those are the facts, and they probably won’t change anytime soon (if what we know about game theory is true). They impact the game, but they are not about the game.

As for steroids, I think that if major-league baseball has a rule against their use, it ought to do random testing to enforce the rule. It’s only common sense. But I don’t see it as a black mark on the game that some players (to speculate on how many seems irresponsible and silly at this point) use steroids to give themselves an advantage. Players in all sports have always done just about everything to give themselves and advantage, and performance-enhancing drugs are no exception.

There are certain things we think should be allowed (bigger mitts, pine tar, batting gloves and gear, etc.) and others that shouldn’t (spitballs, nail files, steroids, etc.). It’s not a black mark on the game that some folks try to cheat, especially when the game is so unserious about enforcing the rules. Again, steroid use impacts the game, but in the end it’s not about the game.

What Bud Selig, Joe Torre, Bob Brenly & co. did to the All-Star Game is another matter entirely. It was a calculated decision to change the rules of the game — while the game was in progress! — for the convenience of the players and against the interests of the fans both in the ballpark and at home. No, that’s too weak a condemnation. It doesn’t even come close to describing the bile that rises in my throat when I think about what they did.

Baseball, unlike most other sports, is timeless. Part of its charm is that, conceivably, a game could go on forever. The average game may last too long, but I’ve never heard a paying fan complain about an extra-inning game. It’s one of baseball’s little devilish tricks that just when you — as a manager, as a player, as a fan — think you’ve go the right strategy figured out to win the game, something can come up and bite you in the ass.

That big bopper you replaced with a light-hitting, speedy defensive replacement — you’re stuck with him and his .240 on-base percentage for the rest of the game. The star catcher you replaced with a rookie so the old-timer could rest his knees — the only good he can do now is wear a rally cap and yell from the bench, as helpless as a fan in the last row of the park.

That is the essence of managing — making decisions that will be second-guessed as soon as you make them and that just as often go well as badly. The constraint on all of your free-wheeling is that you know that the game must be played. No matter what, a conclusion must be had. It ain’t over ’til the last man is out or the winning run crosses the plate.

That’s the game. That’s the way it has been for about 150 years now. Unless there’s bad weather or there aren’t enough players on the field to finish the game, it goes on. The toil of the player continues, for the pleasure of the spectator. Until last night.

“Oh, but what about the players? They might get hurt!” it’s said. “Oh, but what about the players’ regular managers? They’ll be upset!” it’s said. Yes, they might get hurt — that’s known going in. Every game carries the risk that a player might get hurt. No one must participate in the All-Star Game. Players bluff injuries all the time to get out of it. You don’t have to be at the game. You don’t have to start the game. But you’ve got to finish it.

“Oh, but it’s just an exhibition!” it’s said. Yes, it was. It was an exemplary exhibition of a kind of unthinking arrogance which believes it can go around changing the rules willy-nilly without any repercussions, and without any consideration of the game’s true trustees, the fans who cherish it so deeply.

On very few occasions, I’ve left a ballgame early. Usually, it was because I was so tired or sick that I just couldn’t stick it out. I’ve regretted every single time. Sure, I felt bad because I wasted my money or someone else’s, but more so because when I go to a game I like to watch it from start to end. There is a wholeness to it that I find somehow satisfying in a way I’m not sure how to express.

But whether or not I can stick out the end of a game (and I almost always do), I take for granted that it goes on. Like the sun and the moon and the tides, it started without me and will go on when I’m gone. And like our silly little universe, it too will fade into nothingness eventually. The game will go on no matter how many play stoppages we have, because the love we have for the game far exceeds the greed of the owners and the players.

The only way the game will be destroyed is if the game itself changes. And though I’m sure that superficial changes will be made to make sure that this won’t happen again, the fact that Bud Selig would even think it permissible to unnecessarily conclude a game without conclusion speaks very poorly of his understanding of what makes the game so special.

It’s all about the game. If we forget that, we are truly lost. Selig and friends may have forgotten momentarily, but those 41,000-plus fans in Miller Park (paid for with their tax dollars, incidentally) didn’t forget.

“Let them play!” they chanted. “Let them play!” Music to my ears.