I missed last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game because I was traveling. I arrived home at about 12:30 this morning, visited with my family for a few minutes, unpacked my suitcase, and went to bed. Since I did not turn the television on, I had no way of knowing that I could have still watched the last few innings of the game had I wanted to do so. The game lasted fifteen innings, which tied the record for the longest All-Star Game in history, and did not end until around 2:00 a.m.
The American League won. Again.
I have always loved the All-Star Game; it has for decades been one of the highlights of the season for me. What’s not to like? The All-Star Game means that the best players from all of the teams gather to have fun, to display their skills, and to showcase their skills. Always there is a mix of perennial and first-time all-stars, of veterans and youngsters, of stars on their way out and exciting players on their way up.
But the All-Star Game as it is now configured is deeply flawed. The source of the flaw is the ill-advised effort of the MLB powers that be to “make the game mean something.” So, beginning in 2003, the league whose team has won the game has secured the home-field advantage in that season’s World Series for that league’s representative. In other words, since the American League won this year’s All-Star Game, whoever wins the American League pennant will host four of the possible seven games in the World Series, which can be a huge advantage. Atlanta Braves fans such as I recall only too well that the Braves won three games in Atlanta during the 1991 Series only to lose all four games in Minnesota.
Here is the problem in a nutshell: MLB is trying to turn an exhibition game into a game that has real significance. That puts the players and especially the managers in an untenable situation. While natural and professional pride dictates that the players play to win and that the managers manage to win, having World Series home field advantage weighing in the balance could cause a manager to have to make decisions he would not otherwise make. Put yourself in the place of Terry Francona, the manager of the American League team. He has a better than average chance of seeing his Red Sox return to the World Series this year. If so, he wants home field advantage. But he might have to use or to overuse pitchers from someone else’s team—a team with which he in competition for the rest of the season—for the sake of winning an exhibition game.
MLB needs to get away from this hybrid—this amalgam—this Frankenstein’s monster that they’ve created. If the All-Star game is going to “count,” then the league managers need to pick the players and fan voting needs to be eliminated and the rule that requires that each team have at least one representative needs to be dropped, because if the goal is to win the game in order to enhance the league’s chances in the World Series, then what matters is putting the best team possible on the field. Also, the managers should construct the team so that it includes only healthy players and especially so that it includes only well-rested pitchers; any pitcher who pitched on the previous weekend, and I don’t care if that pitcher is as gifted as a combination of Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan, should not be on the team. In my opinion, though, such moves would ruin the game.
Indeed, rather than moving to a completely “serious” game, I would rather see MLB re-embrace the concept of the All-Star Game being a true exhibition game. Forget having it “count” except for bragging rights. Let it be the mid-season “let’s stop and take a breath and have a little fun and celebrate what’s good about baseball” celebration that it is meant to be. Let the fans keep voting for their favorites. Let each team have at least one representative. And if you get into extra innings and run out of players, call it a tie and go home and get ready for the real deal to start back in a couple of days. A tie would make no difference if the game is, as it should be, an exhibition.
At church we deal with a similar hybrid. Sometimes we treat our life as a church as if it is so deadly serious that we take all the joy out of it. Sometimes, though, we treat that life as an exhibition in which the outcomes don’t matter much and to which we don’t need to give our best effort. I have a different attitude about church than I do about the All-Star game. We need to move away from treating it as an exhibition and move toward treating it as the tremendously important matter that it is. Church is about worshipping God; it is about following Jesus Christ; it is about learning from the Holy Spirit; it is about reading the Bible; it is about serving the world; it is about healing hurts; it is about sharing grace. We dare not go through the motions. Still, when done in the right spirit (and Spirit), church is full of joy and peace, because we worship and serve a God who gladly takes the outcomes into God’s own hands.
So let the MLB All-Star Game be an exhibition in which winning still matters a little bit.
But let church life be the serious and vital but joy-filled experience that it is meant to be.