Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

A primer on evolution of pro sports' All-Star events

by Wayne Graczyk

Next week, Japan professional baseball will play its annual two-game All-Star series with contests scheduled at Fukuoka Yafuoku Dome on July 15, and Yokohama Stadium on July 16. The All-Star games are like a festival in Japan, and the series will most likely draw capacity crowds, but has the idea of All-Star games in any sport in any country lost some of its luster over the years?

The first major league All-Star Game was played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1933. It was the brainchild of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, and it showcased all the great players from every National and American League team appearing together at one time. What a concept.

Japanese baseball has played All-Star games since 1951, a year after the two-league system was formed. Through the “golden years,” including the Yomiuri Giants V-9 era (1965-73) and the careers of Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh, three all-star games were played annually from 1963 through 1988.

This year’s MLB All-Star Game is scheduled to be played on Tuesday at Petco Park in San Diego, but with a twist. While the National League Padres will host the game, the American League will be the home team.

The MLB contest became more meaningful beginning in 2003 when then-commissioner Bud Selig decreed the home-team advantage in the World Series each year would be awarded to the representative club whose league won the All-Star Game.

That came after the 2002 All-Star Game ended in an 11-inning, 7-7 tie when the teams ran out of relief pitchers. Some spectators at Milwaukee booed and threw beer bottles onto the field to show dissatisfaction with the decision to end the game rather than play it to a conclusion. A Japanese crowd, of course, would accept a tie game just as it would during the regular season.

Japanese baseball has not yet adopted the concept of home-field advantage in the Japan Series based on an All-Star victory, and it would be difficult anyway, being there are two All-Star games played now, and the series could be split.

In Japan, the games are not “hosted” by the home teams in the stadiums where they are played. The events are staged under the authority of the NPB Commissioner’s Office, and All-Star games have even been played at non-franchise countryside ballparks in cities including Toyama, Nagasaki, Matsuyama, Nagano, Miyazaki, Niigata, Morioka and Iwaki.

Other pro leagues in North America have in recent years changed formats for their All-Star games, abandoning the traditional league vs. league or conference-against-conference matchups.

For example, the NFL switched in 2014 from an AFC vs. NFC Pro Bowl to opposing teams headed by retired NFL stars Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Cris Carter. Players were drafted from both conferences by the alumni captains, and it was difficult to keep up with who was who on Team Rice, Team Sanders, Team Irvin and Team Carter.

The NFL plans to return to the AFC-NFC format in 2017, moving the game from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Orlando, Florida.

The NHL has also tried various innovations including all-star games based on the nationalities of the players, such as North Americans on one team against those from other world countries on the other.

One long-time All-Star game — another Arch Ward original idea — bit the dust 40 years ago and has probably been forgotten by many. The annual pre-season gridiron tilt between College All-stars and the defending NFL champion team was discontinued in 1976 when the Pittsburgh Steelers held a 24-0 lead in the third quarter and play was stopped — apparently forever — during a torrential downpour.

Scores at all-star games in the NFL, NHL and NBA have tended to be much higher than regular-season games because of the lack of defense, special rules and minimal contact, so as to reduce the possibility of injury in what are actually exhibition games.

In the 2009 NHL All-Star Game, for example, the East beat the West 12-11. In the 2011 NFL Pro Bowl, the AFC topped the NFC 59-41, and this year’s NBA All-Star clash saw the West out-dunk the East by the whopping score of 196-173.

Baseball is baseball, though, and Japanese baseball fans still love their all-star games, but covering them is not that easy for other groups. Scouts from MLB teams once thought the All-Star games would give them a chance to observe all the best players at one time. While that is the case, the evaluators realized they are not seeing the players at their best, because of the game’s unofficial nature.

Players are often posted at defensive positions they haven’t played all season, and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki was actually brought in to pitch for the Pacific League during his days with the Orix BlueWave in a 1996 NPB All-Star Game.

Nippon Ham Fighters player Tsuyoshi Shinjo injected comedy into his at-bat in a 2006 game, going to the plate with a light-flashing belt around his waist.

Foreign players have mixed feelings about playing in Japan’s All-Star series, but one pitcher is looking forward to seeing action in Fukuoka or Yokohama. Yomiuri Giants Canadian reliever Scott Mathieson, playing his fifth season in Japan, has been selected to only one All-Star team in his 17-year pro career.

“It was 2010 in Triple-A, in my own home park in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, but I did not get to play,” he said. With two games on tap here, he will no doubt finally get that chance to appear on the mound in what remains one of the more popular All-Star series in sports.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5