May 5, 2011

The 2012 Midsummer Classic will be anything but a classic.

Americans opened their newspapers on April 21, 1912 to find a story gripping the nation. Earlier that week, the world's largest and grandest ocean liner, the R.M.S. Titanic, was sunk by an iceberg, taking 1,500 people with it. Through the majority of the dead were poor and anonymous, the front page was covered with the names of America's and Europe's richest and most distinguished casualties. Industrial tycoons, millionaire moguls and European nobility headlined the names and personified the tragedy.

Historians have since identified the sinking of Titanic as the symbolic end of "the gilded age," a time of grandeur in Western society: obsessions with wealth, larger than life personalities, miracle inventions and man's mastery of the universe. The world had pinned its hopes to 45,000 tons of iron, but when that symbol sank into the abyss of the Atlantic, their aspirations were curtailed, not to recover until after the second World War.

But the death of one dream coincided with the birth of another, this one more innocent, and as of today, more relevant. Bumped from the front page that same week was story about the far more successful maiden voyage of another symbol of engineering; a new ball park in the Fens of Boston.

The Boston Red Sox had opened their new home with a thrilling 7-6 extra inning win over the New York Highlanders, which on any other day would have been front page news. Since then, Fenway Park has made it into far more headlines than the Titanic. The oldest and most historic sports venue in the country has hosted some of baseball's greatest players and moments. If Babe Ruth is the most iconic personality in baseball history, then Fenway is certainly the iconic stage.

Across that stage strode Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Bobby Doer, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Hundreds of Hall of Famers have played within its confines in one uniform or another. And hundreds of near-mythical moments have occurred before its green monster. Arguably the greatest game ever played was Game Six of the 1975 World Series. Where did it happen? Fenway Park, of course.

And next year, this fully functional museum will be celebrating its centennial year, which is kind of a big deal. Most entertainment venues not called the Coliseum never even get one. So you can imagine my surprise when it was announced that the 2012 All-Star Game would be held at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. I practically rubbed my eyes in disbelief. I didn't just think the All-Star Game wouldn't be at Fenway; I was sure it would be. The same way I'm sure the sun will come up each day. It seemed to be such an obvious choice that a debate would be a waste of time.

I have nothing against the Royals home park. It's a beautiful stadium, with its worst feature being the plethora of empty seats. But the Royals could host any other year and nothing would be lost. Passing up the chance to put the Midsummer Classic in Fenway is a serious lost opportunity.

Deciding on a venue is neither random nor turn based; a prospective host team petitions a MLB committee for that privilege, and the choice is made based on how long that stadium had been waiting, how much money the organization has put into renovations and historically significant opportunities.

Kauffman Stadium recently completed extensive renovations, but Fenway itself has finished a multi-stage renovation which started in 2003 when the Red Sox were acquired by Tom Werner and John Henry; both qualify in the first category. Kauffman has been waiting longer -- since 1973 -- whereas Fenway last held an All-Star Game in 1999. But there was a reason for that, and it relates to the last point.

The '99 game was a celebration of the 20th century and gathered nearly every living Hall of Famer at the time. This All-Century team was the largest assembly of baseball talent ever, and the fact that it all happened at Fenway Park was no accident. Major League Baseball took advantage of the opportunity to highlight the greatness of the last century and it was a spectacular success, still remembered as one of the best ASGs ever. Since 1999, few other All-Star Games have really been memorable. 1999 was a landmark year because of the occasion, atmosphere, cast of characters and performances.

The All-Star Game has been in general decline for many years. It was once a dramatic highlight of the baseball season, with the heated rivalry between leagues on display for the whole country to see. The old-fashioned baseball mentality meant that despite each teams warlike competition with each other, they felt an even more raw hatred for the opposing league. It made for a single game of cooperation between the leagues players in a display of league pride. The games were brutal battles of honor and baseball fans ate it up.

But baseball has changed since the 1970's. The constantly increasing emphasis on free agency and contracts meant teams no longer stayed together for years as they once had. And if players could leave the team, they could also leave the league. With players switching things up constantly, there was no longer any hatred between squads since a rival one year could be a teammate the next. Espris-de-corps for team and league hasn't been taken very seriously in some time, and the fight was taken out of the ASG.

Baseball made an effort to inject some intensity back into the game by awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the winning league, but even the tangible reward hasn't produced a clear return of drama. The result has been a predictable drop in ratings for the All-Star Game, which has been an unfortunate trend in general throughout baseball.

Major League Baseball is a business, and even if arguments about history and the quality of the game fall on deaf ears, losing money and ratings will not. There are two ways to improve ratings: drama and large markets. MLB was smart enough to recognize an opportunity in 2008. They staged the ASG in Yankee Stadium for the ballpark's final season, tapping into both the enormity of New York's market and the historic occasion of saying goodbye to a legendary stadium. The event was a success and even featured an extra-inning thriller to live up to the hype.

Fast-forward to the present day and World Series ratings have been on a steady and disturbing decline. MLB is looking for a way to generate more interest in the game, and a chance has been served to them on a silver platter. Or perhaps a green one. The game's oldest and perhaps most loved park is turning 100 years old. Not only that, but it is in a huge market, has an immensely popular powerhouse team and is on an all-time high sellout streak.

Baseball executives should have been drooling while they pictured it; Fenway Park, covered in bunting, filled to the bursting point with fans. National networks with their cameras pointed toward a field full of baseballs best players, many coming from the home team. Maybe Carl Yastrzemski would throw out the first pitch.
Editor's note: He's not dead yet? Well, I'm sure he'll die soon.

In a cartoon, this is when your pupils become dollar signs. If baseball wants to retain viewers while overcoming the black eye of steroids and competing with the NBA and NFL, this move is a no-brainer. But instead, the 2012 All-Star-Game will be held in Kauffman Stadium. The game will be the same as it is most years; a lot of commercials and a worthless Chevy will go to the MVP, who probably already drives a Bentley. Who wants to watch that?

Money is what I would use to pitch to MLB executives, but as a fan, I think there's far more important matters at stake. I get frustrated with baseball because, like every entertainment industry, it is more concerned with its profit margins than with its product. It is hard to see the romance when everything is brought to you by Coca-Cola, PlayStation and Viagra, and there are more people like Scott Boras and A-Rod than Branch Rickey and Christy Mathewson.

When memorable moments are getting harder to find, every lost opportunity becomes severely magnified. The people at Major League Baseball may not have considered this, but is it possible that all of the flashing lights, shiny objects and other gimmicks designed to attract casual fans aren't working and are instead, cheapening the game and driving away the real fans?

It has been longer for Kansas City and granting the game to a small market city shows parity, but choosing Fenway Park is better for the game. The increased revenue and the drama of a historic moment are a much bigger draw than Kauffman Stadium, which could just host the next AL game. I haven't seen anyone drop the ball like this since Manny retired. Too soon?

The Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium, Forbes Field, Tiger Stadium; they're all scrap. But Fenway is still here and next year is her birthday. Isn't that worth celebrating?

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