I’m going to confess something: I loved every bit of the All-Star celebration in Miami. ¡Bienvenidos a Miami! ¡Bien hecho, Miami!
I actually surprised myself with this take. I was among the many sceptics who thought Miami might not be able to pull it off. What reason did I have to doubt? The team’s ownership situation is a nightmare, there is a history or rings but without rich tradition or deep roots, the last time Miami was supposed to host the All-Star game (2000) it had it pulled as a penalty for the reasons above. Plus, the neon green walls may channel the Art Deco neons of Miami Beach, but they are distracting to fans more accustomed to traditional greens of summer. More seriously, the tragic death of José Fernández cast a pall over the park and the city; how would the organization and MLB respond respectfully?
They did, in parts or in whole. Here are seven reason why:
1. Honoring the legacy of Latino legends. Major League Baseball used the occasion to honor Latino legends. These peloteros potentes were represented by Marichal, Aparicio, Carew, Cepeda, Pérez, Alomar, Martínez and Rodríguez. These eight stood in for so many more who contributed so much to the game, the franchises and the cities and nations they represent. MLB also give fitting tributes to the memories and families of Roberto Clemente and José Fernández. In an enviroment that is gaudy and low-key gauche, any of these moments could have gotten away. Gracias a Dios, they did not.
2. Celebrating Latino stars today: Molina, Canó, Cruz, Altuve, Lindor, Sanó, Sánchez. All of these players featured prominently in the past few days, from the Home Run Derby to the game itself. There were more foreign born players on opening day rosters than ever before. According to a report from NBC Sports, 29.8 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were born outside the U.S., spanning 19 countries and territories. Dominican-born players on MLB rosters numbered 93. The DR was followed by Venezuela (77), Cuba (23), and Puerto Rico (16). ¡A jugar! It’s our national pastime and our nation is at a crossroads right now. This good news is the Béisbol Experience is richer, and arguably more compelling than it has been in years. Big market teams like Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York are competitive, and many clubs are expanding their Spanish language media offerings.
3. Marketing of young stars. MLB has always been in a pickle when it comes to marketing stars. The NBA markets matchups based on stars, much the way the NFL marks QB matchups. MLB has been slow to do this partly because the game is not as dominated by individuals and partly because many of the most dominant individuals, starting pitchers, are only on the mound every fifth day. Additionally, there is a tension between local and national coverage than can make calls clunky. Still, there has to be a better way to respect the game and get fans excited about All-World young talents like Harper, Betts, Trout, Judge, Sánchez, Bellinger and Lindor. Yes it’s easier to do when they are all together or the night and yes, the nature of the game means they are all likely to play. Still, sell the game with equal parts Francona (old-school grit) and fanboy (new wave glitz).
4. Names and numbers matter. In a sport obsessed with parsing players based on OPS, WAR, BABIP, and most recently launch angle and exit-velocity, it is fun for fans to see Stars shine. Yes, there are always legacy players who start past their prime and yes, there will frequently be players who have amazing first halves and won’t be recognized. That said, the fan balloting is a way for fans to connect with the game, and now with online voting and Final Votes, there are more ways for fans to engage. I’m old enough to remember the punch ballots, the wooden ballot boxes, and the hanging chads. I imagine that with the volume of votes and the ways to cast them, the right cast of characters ends up on the roster. Another bonus: there seemed to be fewer hold-outs/opt-outs than in the past.
5. Youth: on field, in mind. For years, soccer in the US and internationally has included youth ambassadors as part of pregame ceremonies. It is a powerful way to recognize achievement and connect kids with stars. Now, a ceremony like this is different that your run-of-the-Brad Mills recognition ceremony for academic achievement or community leadership. (Much love to these individuals, by the way.) No, a ceremony like this puts them hand-in-hand with the Stars. On top of the pregame ceremony, there is the tradition of kids shagging flies in the outfield during the Home Run Derby. Based on safety standards and the already contentious issue of length of games, not to mention quirky pregame rituals players have, clubs probably could not do this every day, but it’s a nice look.
6. The game is meaningful. After the debacle in 2002, MLB chose to award home field advantage in the World Series to the team representing the league that won the All-Star Game. Yes it was reactionary and yes it was arbitrary. Nevertheless, alternating sites (AL & NL) is equally arbitrary and any other system, even best regular season record, doesn’t allow for a wild card entry or a team on a wild post-season ride to benefit. It is what it is and it seems to have motivated the like of Chris Sale and Max Scherzer, both of whom came out throwing pure gas as aces on teams in the playoff hunt. (In full disclosure, the fact that my Red Sox benefitted from home field advantage in 2004, 2007 and 2013.)
7. Two words: ‘pitching’ and ‘defense.’ After an epic night of 500′ blasts, the All-Star game ended 2-1 in 10 innings favor of the AL. Why? Pitching and defense. Given the nature of the night and the depth of the staff, pitchers can air it out for one or two innings. Sale, Scherzer, Betances, Kimbrel, Devenski, Jansen and company combined to strike out 23 batters. Upton, Lindor, Harper and Betts all made spectacular plays to keep scoring in check. This proved once again that good pitching beats good hitting, even when the best are matched up against the best.
En fin, ¡Bien hecho, Miami!