Picture it. You’re 7 years old. You’re lying on your stomach, supporting yourself with your elbows and gazing up at the TV. On the screen, baseball’s best players trot out of their dugouts, one-by-one. Your eyes widen as these players you know unite like they’re the “Avengers” for this one night a year.
This night, of course, is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. And this season, baseball fans in Miami — whether they’re 7 or 77 — will be able to watch it up close.
For the first time in the game’s history, the MLB’s best will arrive in Miami for the game, which will be played at Marlins Park on Tuesday night, and surrounding festivities. Current ticket prices for the game range from $284 for upper-deck cheap seats to $90,425 for a luxury suite. Which forces the question of why.
Why are people willing to pay $284 for the worst seat in the stadium when tickets to a regular Marlins game can go for as little as $12? To understand the answer, one must go back. Way back.
A logical place to start could be 1933, when baseball’s first National League vs. American League All-Star Game was played. But that’s not far enough. No, to understand the game’s importance, one should go all the way back to 1858.
Back then, James Buchanan was in the White House. Minnesota had just become the nation’s 32nd state. And for the first time in history, baseball as we know it was being played.
“The Fashion Race Course games of 1858 are incredibly important,” said John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, “for giving us a game that we would recognize if we were teleported back to that time.”
Another way to think of the “Fashion Race Course games” is as the first-ever baseball all-star game. Well, games, actually. Three games played between the best of Brooklyn and the best of New York before they merged into one city.
The contests, Thorn said, were monumental in the eventual development of baseball as we know it for three reasons.
First, they marked the first time admission was charged. About 10,000 fans paid to watch the three-game series, which took place over three months (July, August and September).
Second, the third game of the series marked the application of a new rule: called strikes. Up until that point, batters could take as many pitches as they wanted.
“We talk about long games today and high pitch counts,” Thorn said. “Well, the pitch counts back then could easily approach 450 for a nine-inning game. For one side.”
Third, the game was legitimately baseball’s first all-star contest. It pitted the best nine players from Brooklyn against the best nine players from Manhattan, though there was some controversy over who was selected.
Those three factors, Thorn said, make the 1858 matchups some of the most important in all of baseball history. Without them, baseball might never have evolved from 1800s star Jim Creighton in 1858 to Babe Ruth in 1933.
But since it did, let’s fast forward to the All-Star Game of 1933. This was the first rendition of the All-Star Game as we know it today, and it started as a gimmick.
The game was first conceived by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, according to Baseball Almanac. He wanted to showcase baseball’s best alongside The Chicago World’s Fair. So two teams were put together by team managers and the fans, much like they are today. The game was played on July 6 at Comiskey Park.
The main attraction at the time was Ruth, who smacked the first home run in All-Star Game history in the bottom of the third inning. But he wasn’t the only attraction.
Of the game’s 18 starters, 11 were eventually voted into the Hall of Fame, including Lou Gehrig.
The game was instantly popular, leading to all-star games every year from 1933 on (with the exception of 1945 because of World War II). This tradition is now known as the Midsummer Classic. But why was it so popular?
“It was popular,” Thorn said, “because it was a matchup that you could not see during the regular season.
“This was like getting a glimpse at the the other side of the moon.”
That’s because back then there was no interleague play. American League teams had to win a league pennant to play against National League teams and vice versa. And even then, that only happened once at the very end of the season.
The contests during this era of all-star games yielded many memorable moments, including Ted Williams’ walk-off three-run homer in 1941 that propelled the American League to a 7-5 win. Per Thorn, Williams rounded the bases clapping the whole way.
“Two men were out,” radio announcer Red Barber said at the time, “and what a wallop!”
There was also Cardinals slugger Stan Musial sending a 12th-inning blast into the stands for a walk-off National League win in the 1955 game. Musial’s homer was voted the All-Star Game’s most memorable moment in 2011.
And then there was Pete Rose galloping, chugging and ramming his way through AL catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 game. The collision dislodged both the ball and Fosse’s shoulder and gave the NL the 12th-inning win.
But the system that produced those moments changed in 1997 when interleague play was introduced. And it wasn’t necessarily great for the All-Star Game.
“It lost some luster,” Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler said, “when interleague play happened.”
While the change didn’t have any direct effect on the All-Star Game, it created plenty of meetings between AL players and NL players during the regular season. Therefore, some of the All-Star Game’s intrigue was lost.
Coincidentally, it also marked the beginning of nearly two decades of dominance by the American League, which won 12 consecutive games starting in 1997. The all-time record, however, stands at 43 wins to 42 wins in favor of the National League.
The next big change came in 2002 when, by most accounts, more luster was lost. When that year’s game ended in an 11-inning tie, MLB commissioner Bud Selig proposed that whichever league won the All-Star Game would have home-field advantage in the World Series. Riding the disappointment of the 2002 debacle, MLB owners approved the proposal 30-0.
“This energizes it,” Selig said after the vote in 2003. “This gives them something to really play for.”
But this decision was controversial and grew unpopular as years passed. Thorn added that the move violated the spirit of the game.
“The managers in the All-Star Game were not managing to win,” he said. “They were managing to provide a pleasing contest.”
Nevertheless, this era still produced memorable moments.
There was Ichiro Suzuki’s inside-the-park home run in 2007, for example. When it careened off the right-field wall at San Francisco’s AT&T Park and allowed Ichiro to orbit the bases for a stand-up home run, even Padres pitcher Chris Young — the man who had given up the historic hit — had to smile.
There was Mariano Rivera trotting into the jaws of Citi Field in 2013 for his final All-Star Game appearance while his fellow players — even the ones who were supposed to be lined up on the field — stood by their dugouts to join the fans for a nearly two-minute standing ovation. Rivera soaked in the flashbulbs and fans before retiring the side in order.
And there was Derek Jeter leading off the 2014 game — his 14th and final appearance — with a double down the right-field line and getting an ovation that can probably still be heard echoing through Minnesota’s Target Field today.
That era, however, is over. And this year’s game will mark the beginning of a new one.
In late 2016, players and owners came to a new collective bargaining agreement that reversed the 2002 decision, giving home-field advantage in the World Series to the team with the best regular-season record.
But, really, how much does that change about the All-Star Game? Does the rule change prevent the game’s best power hitter from homering off its best curveball pitcher? Does it stop players from risking injury by playing an extra game for the sake of exhibition? Does it take away from the moments, the memories or the vitality of the game?
In other words, does it change how a 7-year-old watches it?
The answer, according to Thorn, is exactly what makes the All-Star Game special.
“If you go to the All-Star Game and you go to the FanFest and you go to the parades, you get to see ballplayers hanging out who are otherwise mere pixels or electrons for you,” Thorn said. “And no matter how many ballgames you go to in a given year, you are not gonna see an array of stars like you see in this one.”
That brings it back to why. Why are baseball fans willing to pay so much to see the game’s best? Why pay just as much — if not more — for the Home Run Derby? Why take time to watch the best compete against the best, even if you’re just watching on TV?
For baseball fans of all ages, the answer lies in the moments that just can’t happen elsewhere. In the very idea of the best meeting the best.
“It is,” Thorn said, “a celebration of the game.”