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The Midbummer Classic

Page 2 columnist

The other day a reporter from a national newspaper called to ask whether I thought a pitcher from the National League had grooved a pitch for Cal Ripken to hit out in the All-Star Game. I answered that I did not know, because I had not watched the game.

Cal Ripken Jr.
Who cares if Cal's farewell was scripted? All-Star Games hardly matter anyway.
What I did not add was that I did not watch the All-Star Game, because I never watch the All-Star Game. Never have. Never will.

It doesn't matter which sport, baseball, basketball, football or hockey. It's all blather and promotion and sport as exhibition, as far as I'm concerned. The games are, at best, artificial. Mostly they're self-promotional for the leagues. And the blather and self-promotion, given the rising level of spin and huckstering in our society, are getting deeper and thicker all the time -- that is, more is being made about less.

So if you are tempted during a midsummer night to watch the game, remember this golden rule: Fans should never care more than the players themselves about the outcome of the game. That's all you need to know.

Yes, they're the best players and, yes, there are a few exceptional moments when a great pitcher faces a great hitter, but it's not sustained, it's a momentary thing, and they are not competing, not like they compete when they play for real, during the season and particularly in a pennant race or the playoffs or a championship game.

One at-bat between a great hitter and a great pitcher does not a real battle make -- that's reserved for when the two have struggled through three or four at-bats, and when the inning is late and the game is on the line. That's when it matters.

A terrific first quarter in an All-Star Game, when a very good basketball player makes his first five shots because no one is guarding him, is hardly thrilling. It's more like watching practice. Big games, and late innings and fourth quarters ... that's when the test is real.

And that's when we separate great players from the otherwise very good players who have seemingly similar statistics. Great players excel when players who are seemingly just as good -- that is, as good on paper -- are trying to stop them from excelling. That's how we came to know how great Michael Jordan and Joe Montana and Bob Gibson were. They were at their best when it really mattered.

(One of the things I liked about Gibson was that he hated All-Star Games, and not just because they weren't real. He hated them, because he did not like fraternizing with the other great players from the National League, who in his opinion were the sworn enemy. Joe Torre tells a wonderful story about catching Gibson in an All-Star Game, and Gibson deliberately refusing his suggestions on how to pitch to certain hitters, and then refusing to talk to him after the game when they were both showering, and Torre had just congratulated him on how well he had pitched. What a tough, unfriendly unlikable man, he had thought. But then in 1969 when the Cards traded for Torre, Gibson drove to the airport and met Torre on his arrival -- because now he was a teammate and not an adversary. "I've been telling them to trade for you for years," Gibson had said.)

So when it's All-Star Game time, I find something else to watch, or something to read.

Now, if they changed the All-Star thing, and held it after the World Series, and picked, say, the best players from both leagues (say, 13 position players and eight pitchers, none from the World Series teams), and kept the best players in for most of the game, and they played a best-of-five -- I'd watch that in a minute. That might be great baseball.

Have Bud Selig call me, if he decides to go ahead with the idea. Who cares if it takes the season into December? There are a lot of domed stadiums out there now ...

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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