Column: The MLB All-Star Game — with generic uniforms and a slew of new faces — has morphed from ‘Who’s who’ to ‘Who’s that?’

12 July 2023

Seattle Mariners star Julio Rodríguez was asked about his approach during his ninth-inning at-bat against Craig Kimbrel in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

“Oh, definitely trying to win it, honestly,” he said, according to the New York Times. “Once I saw the guy getting to first, my thought was just get a good pitch to drive and let’s try to win this game.”

The “guy” Rodríguez referred to was his American League teammate Kyle Tucker, a Houston Astros outfielder, who had just walked.

Hopefully Rodríguez momentarily forgot who batted in front of him and actually knew who Tucker was.

But if he didn’t, he certainly was not alone. At an All-Star viewing party I attended Tuesday, most of the night was spent answering the same question: “Who’s that guy?”

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s ignorant and widely reviled decision in 2021 to ditch the tradition of All-Stars wearing their own uniforms, combined with so many new faces from teams that seldom appear on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” made identifying the players more difficult than any year I can remember.

Add the decline of big-name starting pitchers, thanks in part to pitch counts and the ongoing “bullpenization” of baseball, and many obscure relievers were selected for the game. The All-Star Game has turned into a guessing game for viewers, from “Who’s who” to “Who’s that?”

Consider the eight pitchers used in the 1971 game in Detroit, which the American League won 6-4. Dock Ellis and Vida Blue were the starters, and Juan Marichal, Fergie Jenkins, Don Wilson, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Mickey Lolich pitched in relief. The game lasted 2 hours, 5 minutes, and is considered a classic. Every pitcher was recognizable to fans, as were the majority of the hitters.

The 2023 game featured 20 pitchers, few known by the average fan, and lasted 3 hours, 3 minutes, despite a relative lack of offense. Much of the reason for the length of the game was the long commercial breaks and incessant promos for the Women’s World Cup next month, plus an extended “Stand Up to Cancer” segment that lasted longer than some half-innings.

For Chicago fans, the lone highlight was Cubs left-hander Justin Steele’s scoreless inning. White Sox center fielder Luis Robert Jr. was scratched after hurting himself in the Home Run Derby, one of those “that’s so Sox” incidents that South Siders have come to expect.

Sox fans did have two former players to root for or against: Texas Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien, who went to Oakland in the 2014 Jeff Samardzija deal and became a star; and Philadelphia Phillies closer Kimbrel, who was acquired from the Cubs in 2021, bombed when Tony La Russa tried to make him a setup man and was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers last year for A.J. Pollock.

The Fox Sports telecast failed to illuminate the charms of Seattle, the All-Star Game host and one of the cooler towns in America. The thematic motif of the pregame show and into the broadcast centered around the fact the city likes its coffee. One video sketch had several players having some fun arriving at Sea-Tac airport, where fun is not known to be had.

The Seattle celebs Fox showed included “Jeopardy!” host Ken Jennings and Fox sportscaster Charissa Thompson. Meh. At least we didn’t get rapper Macklemore, the Seattle sports celebrity version of our Jim Belushi.

An actor from a new superhero movie called “Blue Beetle” also got some camera time, which we can only assume had something to do with the movie trailer that preceded his “impromptu” sighting in the stands.

The biggest disappointment was not hearing the sounds of the trains going by the ballpark and their whistles blowing loudly during play. It has been a tradition of watching Mariners games at T-Mobile Park since it opened in 1999 as Safeco Field and makes it distinct from every other major-league park.

Before the 2001 All-Star Game in Seattle, there was talk of suspending the horns for the weekend to accommodate the Fox telecast, but the idea was shot down. If there were any train whistles Tuesday, they weren’t audible on my TV.

It’s not Seattle to me without the horn going off when you least expect it, but that was no problem for Fox, which did in fact show the Space Needle to prove it knows the city. Maybe Fox can use CGI to block out the Wrigley Field rooftops by the time the Cubs finally get another All-Star Game.

The game itself was notable for packing its biggest moments into the first two at-bats, during which Adolis García and Randy Arozarena made leaping catches in right and left field. There was little action otherwise, unless you count the long wait while umpires tried to determine whether a home run was a foul ball. (It was.)

Fox’s obsession with micing up players in the field reached absurd levels of monotony from the moment Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman agreed that Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani is the rare player who can both pitch and hit. Imagine that.

Fox would’ve been better off micing up the replay officials while they made their decisions. All we got was a few shots of replay central.

Why sports TV executives think players have anything interesting to say during a game remains one the great mysteries of our time. Perhaps the only All-Star who would’ve been fun to listen to live was Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman, who has called Manfred a “clown” on Twitter while calling for his job.

But Stroman opted out of the game to “restore my energy, clear my mind.” Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. said on the pregame show he couldn’t understand why any player would willingly miss the All-Star Game. Unfortunately he didn’t name names.

One of my favorite moments of the telecast was a cutaway to a few fans looking down at their phones and ignoring the game. Nothing says “Baseball in 2023″ like oblivious fans staring at their phones. Otherwise, everything is fine, Manfred.

The second half starts Friday at a ballpark near you.

Keep an eye on this Ohtani guy. We hear he’s pretty good.


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