In the past few years, baseball's health has suffered under the weight of some notable maladies. Steroids. Corked bats. Violent fans. Player-owner face-offs. Owner-Congress face-offs. And the mystery of lower revenues leading to higher salaries. Who's zoomin' who?
But perhaps the last decade's biggest single boner happened at the 2002 All-Star Game, when Commissioner Bud Selig called the game in the 11th inning with the score tied 7-7 after both teams ran out of players. There was neither winner nor MVP, and there were certainly no new fans.
After that fiasco, Major League Baseball aimed to change a few things. To make the All-Star Game "matter" more to players, MLB gave the World Series home-field advantage to the league that won. Contrived and forced? Welcome to Commissioner Selig's world. Honestly, though, the 2003 game in Chicago was certainly not as much a cock-up as the year before, and the players and managers treated the experience a little less like a mere stop on the way to Navy Pier.
Two years later, no one is claiming that Major League Baseball is 100 percent healthy, but the state of the All-Star Game is good. For that, give thanks, because this week the Midsummer Classic arrives in Houston for the first time since 1986.
All-Star Week is like a visit to Disneyland (or maybe Wally World) for the baseball fan. You can watch a little real baseball, sort of, on July 11. The Futures Game offers the best young prospects in all of baseball, and the format, obviously created by irony-free minds, is US vs. the World. Following that, it's the Legends and Celebrities Softball Game, pitting semi-mobile former ballplayers against emaciated actresses and ripped pretty boys in a rousing, if stupid, exhibition game.
On July 12, it's the slam-dunk contest of MLB: the Home Run Derby. Always the most popular nongame event, last year's bombfest saw Albert Pujols pound 26 balls out of the yard and still lose to Garret Anderson, the quiet Anaheim Angel who also took home the All-Star MVP the next day. The big question: Will home-run king Barry Bonds participate? The likely answer: Get the fuck out of my face!
Finally, after a week of hype, comes the 2004 All-Star Game on July 13. Will it be worth it? Can we expect a good game? Sure, why not? If you love baseball, then you love baseball, and love endures the drugs, the money, the egos and all the public relations crap.
But you know what's cool? In 1986, a 23-year-old American League pitcher tossed three perfect innings at the Astrodome against the best the National League had to offer. He took home the All-Star Game MVP trophy, and then, during the years that followed, established himself as possibly the greatest pitcher ever.
Those 18 years may have changed baseball, sometimes for the worse, but they've only made Roger Clemens better. And if the Rocket takes the mound on All-Star night in Houston, his hometown, wearing his new Astros jersey, and you don't get a shiver as the cheers pulse through Minute Maid Park, then somebody's called your game, mister, and this isn't for you.