Los Angeles — Before you can fully appreciate baseball's annual Major League All-Star Game, which reaches its 51st installment on Tuesday in Dodger Stadium, first you have to know what it isn't!
It isn't is a bicycle built for nine.
It is a recital -- Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on a sound stage; Orson Welles doing Shakespeare in a tuxedo; 18 jazz musicians, all with their own style, jamming in New Orleans's French Quarter.
Dipping into history, it's Carl Hubbell (1934) striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in succession; Ted Williams (1946 ) hitting a home run off Rip Sewell's blooper pitch; and Pete Rose (1970) barreling into Ray Fosse at home plate.
Nobody ever remembers the score, the weather, or the quality of the hotdogs. It's the glitter and glamour, the dream stuff that people still talk about decades afterwards. Owning a 1933 All-Star game program today, for example, might be a better hedge against inflation than owning silver or gold.
Casey Stengel may or may not have said it first, but almost everybody agrees that baseball lends itself more to an all-star format than any other game. It's a stage for a series or solo performances ; a ballet where the dancers wear spikes; a triple somersault without a net.
Pro football's showcase game, with its special rules that restrict linemen from their usual pursuit of the quarterback, is a different attraction than the one played during the regular season. Everybody is too afraid of getting hurt.
Hockey's "Star" game is often just a lot of guys skating fast together; while pro-basketball is generally total offense, although admittedly sometimes the passing is unbelievable.
Baseball, being less of a team game, opens things up naturally for the individual. He can go for the home run with two strikes against him and nobody will object. He can try for a circus catch in the outfield with men on base, or he can run through a stop sign at third and not be fined.
National League fans deprived of New York slugger Reggie Jackson during the regular season want to see him close up, whether he hits a home run or simply disturbs the air three times around home plate.
American League fans want to see Houston's James Rodney Richard and judge for themselves whether there is just a trace of smoke trailing from his fastball. And everybody wants to see Pete Rose slide into third base on a chest Pete seems to think has the same characteristics as a Flexible Flyer.
At first the owners didn't like the All-Star game. Who needs it, they said. Too much brother, they said. Get rid of it before it becomes a habit, they said.
Now, with its nationwide media coverage and the thousands of dollars in free publicity that it generates, they are a little more tolerant.
One of the things the All-Star Game has never solved, and probably never will , is a way to select its participants that will please everybody.
Often when players have been allowed to vote in the past, petty jealousies have gotten in the way. Yet whenever the fans do the balloting, there is always a tendency to ignore current records and either vote from memory or turn the whole thing into a publicity contest.
Personally, since it's a fans' game, I think the balloting should left to them, but not the final decision. That would be made by a committee composed of one fan from each major league city, whose ballot (it would include the voter's name and address) has been pulled from a secret drawing.
It would then be the responsibility of that committee, while paying strict attention to the popular vote, not to allow a star who hadn't played much because of injuries to get into the starting lineup.
It would also have the right to name one honorary playing member to the squad -- like Lou Brock (who retired last year from the Cardinals) or Willie McCovey (who is retiring this year from the Giants).
Another thing that makes All-Star games interesting is that although it's possible for a No. 8 hitter or a little known pitcher to steal the thunder in a World Series, it couldn't happen in baseball's Dream Game because he'd never make the squad.
It's also the one time in the season, I think, when even the National League would agree that the designated hitter is a good thing.