By Steve Silverman
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There was a time when the All-Star Game really was the Midsummer Classic and one of the major highlights of the season.
The idea of watching the National League’s greatest stars — Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Koufax and Gibson — strut their stuff against an overmatched group of American Leaguers was truly eye-catching. The collection of talent on the NL side was remarkable and predictable.
The All-Star Game has changed quite a bit from the halcyon days of the 1960s and ‘70s when both sides wanted to win the game and show off league superiority quite badly.
Make no mistake about it, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, and Reggie Jackson wanted to win and end the AL humiliation, but it was simply too much to ask.
When Babe Ruth christened the All-Star Game with a home run in 1933, it triggered the American League’s 12-4 run to start the series. The National League eventually said enough was enough in the 1950s, and the senior circuit would tie the series in 1964 when Johnny Callison of the Phillies hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning at Shea Stadium to give his side a 7-4 win.
The National League would win the following year at old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, and it has held the lead since. The NL would win 19 of 20 All-Star Games between 1963 and 1982.
Eventually, the balance of talent would change and the American League would finally wake up. Many fans remember the grand slam that Fred Lynn of the California Angels hit in 1983 as the big blow in a 13-3 AL victory that ended the bleeding.
The American League has since put together a 22-6-1 streak, and now trails 43-42-2 heading into Tuesday night’s game at Marlins Park in Miami.
But just how much does the All-Star Game mean in 2017? Managers want to make the players happy and get everyone some time. Lip service is paid to wanting to win, but the game is not played that way. The starting pitchers may get two innings, but it would be a surprise if any of the others get more than an inning on the mound.
Former commissioner Bud Selig tried to add importance to the game by giving the winning league homefield advantage in the World Series. That decision came after the embarrassment of the 2002 game, which ended in an extra-inning tie because the pitchers had not been used wisely and there weren’t enough to continue.
Selig’s decision came from the heart, but it was not well received. Homefield advantage in the World Series had simply alternated in the years before Selig’s decision, and current commissioner Rob Manfred has decided to give the edge to the pennant winner with the best record.
That’s fair, but it also could have been awarded to the league that had the better record in regular-season interleague competition. That option was rejected.
The All-Star Game has some very special players this year, including Yankees rookie outfielder Aaron Judge, Astros studs Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, along with Mookie Betts of the Red Sox.
The National League has outfielder Bryce Harper and ex-Met Daniel Murphy, both of the Nationals, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, and Giants catcher Buster Posey.
Those stars are all capable of putting on impressive offensive shows, but American League pitchers like Chris Sale, Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel are likely to have a lot to say about stopping the National Leaguers, while Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke and Kenley Jansen have the goods to keep the American League attack in check.
The resources are there for something special on Tuesday night. Unlike other sports, baseball players can step in and produce even when they haven’t played together regularly.
They don’t have to dial it back as they do in the NFL’s Pro Bowl or avoid defense, as is the case in the NBA All-Star Game. The NHL has found a nice three-on-three formula in its recent All-Star festivities, but it is a gimmick.
Pedro Martinez put on an electric performance in 1999 at Fenway Park by striking out the first four batters he faced, and Mike Trout had back-to-back MVP performances in 2014 and 2015.
Those kind of showings can turn the All-Star Game into a must-see event once again.
The talent is there, as it always has been. It’s just a matter of turning up the intensity and having both teams play to win.
The American League has plenty of motivation, whether the players know it or not. The junior circuit has been down for more than 50 years, and it has a chance to get even. The NL has to fight to hold its narrow edge.
It’s a battle that few realize is being fought, and that’s what needs to change.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy