For a long time, MLB wanted its All-Star Games to be serious business. As far as I can tell, this was the logical conclusion of its broader, decades-long “no fun” policy, and extended across the entire All-Star break. Seriously, the 1987 Home Run Derby had eight home runs, total. The next year’s competition was evidently so little anticipated it was simply rained out, and then the 1989 Derby didn’t even change the format beyond doubling the number of contestants (to eight). Eric Davis and Ruben Sierra tied for first, with three total. The league apparently thought this was all fine. 

The idea the break should be fun wouldn’t come into favor until its disconnection from home field advantage. The iteration of the Home Run Derby to the present, adrenaline-blitz version was one step, but looking back a real watershed moment might be last year, bending the rules to allow Shohei Ohtani the pitcher and hitter to exist in the game as separate entities (in a forerunner of his eponymous rule, adopted league-wide this year). The commissioner’s office might not directly endorse the “it’s a game and it doesn’t matter” ethos, since it’s a slippery slope to the year’s other 3000-odd games that are also simple games, but it’s clear fun is now among the league’s priorities for the break. The 2022 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game were some of the best in recent memory, and it felt like a true celebration of the game, recognizing the countless ways the sport connects and affects people. An exhibition game doesn’t have to be a simulacrum of the regular season, and many of the night’s best moments embraced that reality. It made for an All-Star Game that was largely the same, but better. Here’s how the best Midsummer Classic in recent years was like and unlike the regular season.

SAME: Giancarlo Stanton Hits It Hardest
In 2016, Giancarlo Stanton hit the first 120-mph batted ball of the Statcast era. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez became the second and third players to break 120 as Stanton pushed his record to 122.2, which he matched with a GIDP last August. No one else has joined the club and only a handful of players can boast a 119 mph batted ball, whereas Stanton has hit 12 balls at least 120 miles per hour. Fittingly, he now owns the hardest-hit ASG ball since the Statcast cameras started rolling, tying the game on a Tony Gonsolin splitter that went 457 feet at an exit velocity of 111.7 mph. The count was was 0-2, btw. Maybe they should’ve intentionally walked him.

DIFFERENT: Julio Rodríguez Has Arrived
With the All-Star break as lively as it ever has been and the push to find broader audiences evidently bearing fruit in recent years, especially as it comes to the Home Run Derby, it was the perfect time for a statement of purpose. After forcing the All-Star issue despite a disastrous April (.544 OPS) thanks to an .886 OPS since and 21 steals, Rodríguez joined a long lineage of players who didn’t win the derby but will be remembered to have. He hit 32 home runs in the first round, double his major league total and more than he hit in the minor leagues. After the display of force, he said;

“What did I show the fans? Who I am, I guess. A little bit of my style … I think they know a little bit now.”

It’s been a season of Rodríguez and the Mariners showing fans their style—after being basically written off by the end of May, when they’d scraped nine games under .500, Julio has solidified himself as the star talent of a club that’s arguably best-positioned of all the Wild Card contenders and came into the break winners of 14 straight. Next year, the All-Star Game shifts to Seattle. You’ll see Rodríguez there, headlining the best new generation of Mariners in at least a decade.

The game was a sellout, with a reported attendance of 52,518; as always, you wouldn’t have known it from the stands in the first three innings. The All-Star Game packs a lot of power, but traffic is undefeated. Also, every stadium needs an organist. Or really any dedicated standalone instrumentalist works; I would love to hear the Rockies keyboardist cover of Mr. Brightside, frankly, though I’m not sure it’ll top Tuesday’s pipe organ All Star by Smash Mouth.

Different: Mookie Betts Is Doing What He Signed Up For
The first Los Angeles All-Star Game since 1980 falls 75 years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers, and was played on the 100th birthday of Rachel Robinson, his widow. Mookie Betts came prepared:

The shirt, sold by Bricks and Wood, speaks for itself and indicates Betts’ redoubled commitment to using his voice to elevate others. The phrasing of the shirt seems deliberately vague, able to be understood in terms of fans, players, stadium workers, reporters, and more. Betts is one of the league’s most visible Black athletes, and appears ready to take a more active role in attempting to reverse the recent downturn in Black players in MLB produced by disparities in facilities, equipment, promotion, and hiring, Asked after the game if he felt a responsibility to speak out, Betts said he did, adding that he “used to shy away from it” but that “growth” has him at a “different part in life.”

Betts also led the rosters in a pregame tribute to Rachel Robinson, taking on the sort of high-visibility role he rarely seemed to seek out earlier in his career. Of his sixth All-Star Game, Betts said, “that tribute right there is probably the thing I’ll remember the most.” I’m sure he won’t be the only one, and Betts’ desire to take on a more active role in advocating for Black people in baseball comes at what could be a pivotal point; four of the draft’s first five picks were Black, a first in the draft’s nearly six decades. If the league’s efforts to reinvigorate Black kids’ participation in baseball and eventually produce more Black MLB players through draft and development are to bear fruit, players like Betts will have a crucial role to play.

SAME: Everyone Hates the Astros
In a decision I’m going to assume was intentional (because it’s funnier that way), in announcing the AL All-Star team’s coaching staff, the Dodgers stadium announcer neglected to mention the club they’re representing. Perhaps the booth figured the various former and ex-Astros on the roster caught enough boos in the pre-game ceremonies and their at-bats. Maybe they just wanted to measure how common the knowledge is that the managers of the All-Star rosters hail from the previous year’s World Series entrants; maybe they know the dudes who led the 2017 Houston unit are all working for different clubs now. In any case, the crowd wasn’t deterred, and the LA faithful are generally not especially discerning with their booing targets anyway—Manny Machado still gets booed because … he didn’t quite maintain his MVP pace from Baltimore in his three months as a Dodgers rental? (I’m not actually entirely clear on that one.) In any case, unless I’m much mistaken the crowd booed the entire AL coaching staff to various degrees, including honorary coach Willie Horton. What better way for the Tigers legend, who still holds an official role in the Tigers front office at 79 years old, to be bonded with his temporary coaching cohort? Let pettiness reign.

DIFFERENT: Alek Manoah Pumps It Up
The All-Star Game is the perfect time for MLB to continue its experiment with on-field interviews, and as with the Joey Votto appearance on Opening Day, MLB could hardly have chosen a better interviewee. Manoah was casual and congenial (between gasps for breath) with broadcaster John Smoltz, even managing to be revealing about his craft—he appeared to note he was missing a tick on his fastball, coming in at 93 for the early stages of his outing, as well as when he got it back. His, “Here we go! There’s one!” about a 94.2 mph sinker for a called strike three is testimony that even when one is among the best in the world at something, it’s still nice to show off for a friend, as Smoltz appeared to be. Upon the Hall of Famer’s suggestion to backfoot a slider on Jeff McNeil, Manoah replied, “Oh, you’re sexy.” After the game, he commented on the surreality of the interview, stating, “Usually, when I talk to myself, nobody talks back.” Stars: they’re just like us (or me, at least).

After the game, I asked a few players if they could ever imagine themselves wearing a mic in game that counted. Austin Riley told me he’d have no problem with doing one in an exhibition game, but couldn’t do it in-season because he’d be upset if he made an error on mic. Liam Hendriks, who was mic’d up (with technical difficulties) during the ‘21 All-Star Game, said he wouldn’t want to be distracted in a real game, when no one wants to be “the guy out there joking around.” While I’d guess this is the majority viewpoint, interviews with Ramon Laureano in the 2020 playoffs and Joey Votto on Opening Day 2022 demonstrate that MLB is at least considering making on-field interviews more commonplace. Interviews like Manoah’s, though, show how much more the form can shine in exhibitions. Keep it to preseason, the All-Star Game, and Reds games, in my opinion—the stuff that doesn’t matter. Also, I have to stand against the process on principle in case it accidentally tulpas this tweet into being:

SAME: The Shift Sucks
I can’t really think of a way to ban the shift that seems non-stupid, but it’s more of a problem than ever, and about the only thing that might’ve been more blandly representative of the modern game’s failures would be if we got a position player pitching in the Midsummer Classic. It’s not worth debating what’s ultimately a question of aesthetics, but in both cases a strong majority of fans seem to think it’s just not fun to watch, and shouldn’t that be enough reason to justify a change? Plus, not to presume on Rob Manfred’s behalf, but he could probably use a PR boost, and maybe people would support a shift ban just because it might hurt the Astros:

“The shift giveth and the shift taketh away … But still, I think it giveth more than it takes away.”

I don’t think Dusty Baker meant this as a general comment on the shift (though the Astros appear among its heaviest beneficiaries), but it illustrates a point in favor of a ban or limit. While shifts might be a net positive for some teams, league-wide they’re zero-sum; defense gets better while offense becomes proportionally worse. It wouldn’t make sense to ban sweepers just because they’ve accompanied an offensive downturn that would make pitching as a whole, and thus the level of competition, worse. A shift, though, is doing nothing to make baseball more exciting to watch: it doesn’t increase a fielder’s range or throwing capabilities, it’s hard to explain when and why it’s effective. A good analogue would be bat composotion in college baseball—it’s a lever that changes the shape of the competition but not its quality. Plus, seriously, yawn: would you be sad if you never saw a shift again, starting tomorrow? I could’ve done with the NL logging a hit in innings two through seven.

DIFFERENT: Quiet on the Awards Front
Generally, it’s asinine to care about awards at all before the season’s final month; too much can change. But given a) that Aaron Judge is still on pace for 59 home runs and b) Shohei Ohtani, it’s easy to forecast a pitched battle (and a hit one! sorry). Last year, Ohtani effectively cemented his hold on the award over the break—he was already going to win it, but after hitting six 500+ foot home runs in the Derby and then throwing a perfect first inning while touching 100 mph the next evening, anyone who didn’t vote Ohtani was going to get pilloried worse than whoever left Derek Jeter off their Hall of Fame ballot.

This year, Ohtani announced ahead of time he wouldn’t be pitching, noting that he has a start scheduled two days after the break. Appearing as a measly one-way player, he simply told the world exactly how he was going to get a hit off Clayton Kershaw’s 91 mph heat, and he did. He got immediately picked off, but it’s a mind game—-gotta get them to underestimate you. Judge took the same strat, striking out in both at-bats. We’ll have to find some other groundhog by which to do our forecasting.

SAME/DIFFERENT: Albert Pujols/Miguel Cabrera Are Still Here
Sure, legacy selection sounds like how the family failson got into an Ivy, and then into a fraternity there, but this is just a really good idea. There are so many players who deserve a moment in the national spotlight as their careers wane, and while in the past it’d be nice to give someone like Pujols a nod for old times’ sake, it sucks to take away a chance from a player who might not have been selected once, let alone eleven times. This way, no one goes hurt and everyone goes home happy—isn’t that what these games are all about?

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