Baseball ruins everything it touches

Only this messed-up ex-national pastime could manage to take its premier fan event, the first genuinely exciting All-Star Game in years, and abandon it without an outcome.

Published July 10, 2002 7:19PM (EDT)

Remember the scene in the movie "Chinatown" where the coroner says to Jack Nicholson, "The water commissioner drowns in the middle of a drought! Only in L.A.!" That's baseball 2002. Only this messed-up ex-national pastime could manage to take its premier fan event, the first genuinely exciting All-Star Game in years, played in perfect weather, in a domed stadium, in the commissioner's hometown, and have to abandon it after just two "extra innings," without an outcome.

Like "Chinatown," or any other film or work of fiction, sports requires the suspension of disbelief. A baseball game, at its essence, means nothing. You have to convince spectators that it's important, and you do this by determining, if at all possible, a winner and a loser.

But at Tuesday night's 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, baseball's moguls failed to do this simplest, most essential of things, because they ran out of fresh pitchers. The managers had already used every player in uniform for the game, and they feared that as the game continued, they were putting the pitchers then in service at some kind of risk. With the consent of the seemingly hexed commissioner Bud Selig, the game was declared a 7-7 tie.

The American League's Freddy Garcia, of the Seattle Mariners, and the National League's Vicente Padilla, of the Philadelphia Phillies, had each thrown two innings. Any more work, baseball's geniuses agreed, could have jeopardized the health of their arms, or their next scheduled regular season appearances for their teams.

So why weren't there more pitchers available to relieve Garcia and Padilla? Because at some time in the last decade, what was originally conceived, and what has forever after been billed, as "the fans' game," has become "the players' game." The pitchers present had all been used up (only Garcia and Padilla pitched more than one inning each) because you couldn't very well ask a player to travel all the way to an All-Star Game and not actually play in it, could you? And you couldn't run the risk of his appearance jeopardizing his arm or delaying his next regular season start, could you?


As recently as 1997, seven healthy players, including six pitchers, didn't get to play. The pitchers were held in reserve specifically for the most delightful of all prospective problems: The game might be so competitive that it would be tied at the end of the regulation nine, and require extra innings. In 1967, when the game lasted 15 innings, Jim "Catfish" Hunter pitched the final five innings for the American League, and when it finally ended, there were still three pitchers left in the American League bullpen just in case it had gone longer.

This used to be standard practice. As late as 1988, a starting pitcher, Dwight Gooden, pitched the first three innings. In 1986, both starters, Gooden and Roger Clemens, pitched three. Going back to the event's earliest days, in 1942 the American League used only two pitchers while seven others looked on from the sidelines. In 1937, fully 10 of the American League's 22 All-Stars didn't play at all.

The irony of the ignoble end to the 2002 game lies in the decision, made just days before, to name the award for its most valuable player in memory of the late Ted Williams. While the fiasco over preserving his body raged, baseball abandoned an All-Star Game to preserve the bodies of Freddie Garcia and Vicente Padilla.

It was Williams, of course, who played so hard in All-Star games that he fractured his elbow while running into a fence in the 1950 contest -- and stayed in the game. The injury required surgery that cost him most of the rest of the season, and its aftereffects lingered for the rest of his career.

Even if the means of playing this game must be adjusted from Williams' day to today's era of fragile, hard-to-insure, pampered millionaires, a contingency plan could've easily been in place. A small group of three or four pitchers per league could have been selected as "emergency alternates." If baseball's owners balked at the added expense, these men could have been selected for the National League squad from the host team, the Milwaukee Brewers, and from one of the American League teams located most closely to Milwaukee, the Chicago White Sox or the Minnesota Twins.

The deepest meaning of the All-Star fiasco is contained, as ever, in history. In 1890, in a time of tumultuous labor wars, with three different leagues operating, and fans staying away in droves, the World Series between Brooklyn and Louisville was so poorly attended that the contest was cancelled after each team had won three games. It, like this year's All-Star game, was abandoned.

Not only would the 1890 World Series be the last staged for 13 years, but one of the three leagues went out of business weeks later, and a second folded a year after that. It is an awful omen, for as a symbol for baseball's current labor situation, its steroid scandal, its constant assault on its fans, there could be no more potent analogy than an abandoned All-Star game. This was, literally, the proverbial no-win situation.

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Even those things baseball touches only peripherally seem to wither into discord and irrationality. Reverend David Benke was one of dozens of religious leaders who attended the interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium in New York last September, just 12 days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. His bosses at the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church have now decided that in so doing, he committed heresy, displayed a lack of integrity, violated two of the 10 commandments and "dragged" his faith to the "level of Islam," because he worshiped alongside "pagans."

I was at Yankee Stadium on that poignant afternoon. Though my own brother-in-law is a Lutheran minister, I am suspicious of all organized religions. Yet my heart was warmed by, and my eyes swam with tears at, the unity, the tolerance, the respect that these decent men and women of all faiths expressed. Their words and their very presence underscored that what happened in this country on Sept. 11 was anything but a religious conflict. What they did helped to heal me, and heal my city. For that, the Lutheran Church has branded Reverend Benke a heretic. In fact, the heresy, the shame, the lack of integrity, is in their souls, not in his.

It is hard to contemplate having to choose which of these organizations -- Major League Baseball, or the Lutherans' Missouri Synod -- has become more disconnected with its purpose, and its faithful. Either one is bad enough.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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