The death of America’s All-Star Game has been protected, even promoted by nay-sayers who say the times have passed it by. Yet the fundamental nature of the game is one that’s as enduring as the American spirit itself, which is why we’ll continue to celebrate it long after its critics depart from the scene.
“Dad, look! It’s a poster for Ender Inciarte!” My nine-year-old bounds over to a sign, cleverly designed to look like one of the many Karen Handel-Jon Ossoff yard signs that dotted the North Atlanta landscape. The sign begs fans to cast their ballots for the Atlanta Braves centerfielder, a little known player who has become a fan favorite for his stellar play, robbing opponents of hits (he currently leads the league in put outs), and he led the league in assists last year, gunning down baserunners (leading the league in double-plays from the outfield). In fact, he won a Gold Glove Award from Rawlings for his efforts.
Inciarte doesn’t just prevent hits; he smacks plenty of his own. Quietly, he became a league leader this year in base hits, often hit in timely situations, sometimes the result of his hustle in beating out the infielder’s throw. And he’s number one in at-bats, never missing an inning of work if he can help it (and is in the top 10 in making it on base, and scoring runs). All this hard play is done at a fraction of what baseball stars make (he makes little more than $500,000, a pittance compared to the rest of the game’s best). He inspires my son to try and beat out infield hits of his own, or try to throw out a speedy runner after stopping a hard hit ball. If only we had tickets for the Ender Inciarte bobblehead doll night!
In a way, Inciarte is a lot like a Horatio Alger story. From Marivel Venezuela, he made his way to America, even as his home country spirals into chaos thanks to the authoritarian rule of Nicolas Maduro. Given his public criticism of the Maduro regime, Inciarte is probably as much a political refugee as anyone today. Baseball players there targets, not sources of admiration.
As my son poses for a picture with the “Elect Ender Inciarte” sign, he points at the others touting the All-Star candidacies of Brandon Phillips, an African-American second baseman, and the team’s star, Freddie Freeman, a white first baseman willing to move to third base to help the Braves win. It’s a multicultural team that the fans embrace as they battle teams with more stars and bigger payrolls in the competitive National League East.
In fact, the greatest moment in our team’s recent years was the huge fan effort to write-in Freeman against Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers. Pundits had hoped to see the talented but controversial Puig win, instead of the lunch-pail style Freeman, who quietly has become one of the game’s best, while others like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Puig win the headlines. Last year, Freeman stopped to shake my hand at a Braves Day event while the staff was trying to drag him off to a press conference that he was late for.
Times have changed. No longer do we punch out a ballot. It’s online nowadays. I’m sure it will give the purists something else to gripe about. These mandarins of the game have told us that we’ve ruined the game with inter-league play, by making the All-Star Game determine home field advantage. Those who chase fads, on the other hand, claim that the game has been eclipsed by football, basketball, hockey, or even the X-games. Yet which Pro Bowl or NBA All-Star game is filled with moments like Pete Rose crashing into Catcher Ray Fosse, or Carl Hubbell striking out a “who’s who” list of Hall-of-Famers, Reggie Jackson’s towering homer, Dave Parker gunning down Jim Rice and Brian Downing, Chipper Jones getting a hit at his last All-Star game or the moving tribute to Mariano Rivera?
“Dad! Ender Inciarte’s going to the All-Star Game!” Zach exclaimed the good news a week or so ago as he bounded over to me, having read the trailer on the TV in Mighty Joe’s Pizza. And yeah, we’ll let him stay up to send the end. This game is special tonight.
Regardless of how the games change, or society changes, there’s one thing about the Major League Baseball All-Star Game that remains the same and taps in to what America is all about. It combines individual talent and teamwork. In the game itself, players from a variety of teams must come together to harness their skill, while checking their egos to get outs and score runs. And yes, a little-known player can take his place among the best, and possibly be immortalized as the game’s MVP.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.