Once upon a time, it was must-see TV.As its self-proclaimed stage name exclaimed, it was a “classic.” The Midsummer Classic. The American League vs. the National League. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, all in the same outfield. Reggie Jackson, homering onto the Tiger Stadium roof. Pete Rose, steamrolling into Ray Fosse. Randy Johnson, firing one over the noggin of a thoroughly unnerved John Kruk.The 1976 Major League All-Star Game, played in Philadelphia, featured 13 future Hall of Famers. A television audience of more than 36 million watched the National League win easily 7-1. Last year’s All-Star Game, by comparison, an 8-0 NL victory, drew 10.9 million U.S. viewers.Ratings have fallen in all genres of TV programming, but in the All-Star Game’s case, the symptoms seem to fit the ailing patient.The All-Star Game, despite the artificial gravitas assigned to it by the commissioner of baseball, has become just another way for the Fox network to hype its summer programming. Be prepared Tuesday for nightlong promos for the August debut of Fox Sports 1, the network’s planned antidote to ESPN.The game? The smarmy introduction by Joe Buck? The 18 pitching changes?History says that 25 million of you who were watching in 1976 will pass Tuesday night. It’s getting harder and harder to blame you.Far and away, the All-Star Game’s most gnawing problem is its faux solemnity. Since 2003, the winning league gets to host the opening game of the World Series, a privilege that the Texas Rangers — twice denied — can attest to the importance of.The contrived prize arose out of the much-disparaged 7-7 tie in the 2002 game. But the commissioner’s reaction was all wrong. The outcry after the 7-all draw wasn’t because the All-Star “classic” didn’t have a golden carrot at the end of its stick. Rather, it was because the game lost track of what it was — i.e., an exhibition game, designed for the benefit of the fans.Being an exhibition need not trivialize the event. Despite what Fox professes, the All-Star Game didn’t begin to “mean something” when the commissioner attached the Series to it.It meant something in 1946 when Ted Williams hit Rip Sewell’s eephus pitch for a home run. It meant something in 1970 when Rose bulldozed into Fosse. It meant something in 1999 when Pedro Martinez struck out five in two innings.Fans remember those moments. The players and the memorable plays give the All-Star Game meaning, not the final score. Instead of linking the outcome of the game to the postseason, the honor of opening the World Series should go to the winner of the league that wins the most interleague contests during the season.The All-Star Game is supposed to be an exhibition. The honorary managers should be free to fill their rosters and manage accordingly.Instead, as managers seek to empty their benches, some players get held in reserve and never enter the ballgame. That has never seemed fair to me. A simple rules alteration, however, could remedy that. For this one baseball game on this one night, the rules should allow both teams to reinsert their starting position players after six or seven innings have been played. That would allow the managers to freely empty their benches. And in the possibly most important part of the game, it would put the players on the field that the fans most want to see. True story: At the 1995 All-Star Game in Arlington, media members were allowed into the clubhouse after the sixth inning to interview starters who had been removed. Cleveland’s Albert Belle, however, angrily refused to answer a single question. He said he had a plane to catch.If starters had been allowed to re-enter, Belle’s cantankerous posterior would have been back on the bench, waiting to possibly pinch-hit.That’s all. One simple change of the rules for one special night. But first, it’s time to get rid of that ill-conceived World Series tie-in, which sends a mixed message that conflicts managers and fans alike. The All-Star Game was conceived in 1933 as an exhibition game. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a classic once again.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton