DENVER — If I were Jacob deGrom or ran the Mets, I would be understanding after a first half of greatness, but also injury concerns, why he is skipping the All-Star Game.
I get why Aaron Judge (Yankees), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres) and their teams are most comfortable with none of them participating in Monday’s Home Run Derby.
I see why all four Astros opted not to attend the All-Star Game and subject themselves to more questions and booing related to illegal sign stealing (though only two were with the 2017 champions) and perhaps a snub or two from still-upset fellow All-Stars such as Judge.
I recognize that the first half has left plenty of players banged up and feeling they needed the rest and healing time for the coming games that count in the second half than to show up and/or play in what ultimately is an exhibition game. I feel you Mookie Betts, though it is hard to miss that you homered Saturday and Sunday.
I appreciate what the players association has suggested — that players have been through unprecedented COVID protocols to play last year and this year, leaving many mentally and physically waylaid and in need of a midseason respite to recharge batteries, brains and bodies.
Individually each decision makes sense for the player, for his team. But how is that good for the fans and the game? If everyone thought this way, we would have an empty Coors Field on Monday and Tuesday. This is such a collective middle finger to a fan base who vote for starters, who watch the game, who care.
A decade ago, MLB and the players association codified that players are required to participate in the All-Star Game except for a few exemptions mostly around injury. Players who opt out without a legit excuse — and let’s be real, every team doctor is going to give the snow-day note to excuse his guy — can be fined. And we should expect this will be just another arena in which the league and the union will have bad blood and fights.
But, deep breath here. I am not interested in the punishment. I am interested in the sport being able to see the big picture; to see that if we keep treating the fans this poorly we shouldn’t throw up our hands amazed when they opt out.
It is charging full price for each end of a seven-inning split doubleheader. It is teams and players putting blinders on to chase winning whether it is stealing signs illegally or lathering on industrial sticky stuff or fostering a game of power pitching and power hitting that lasts too long and has far too little action. Who is watching out for the game, writ large? Who can see beyond their individual needs and wonder what would bring the greatest entertainment to the fans?
When the Yanks load-manage Judge out of the starting lineup of a nationally televised game when Ohtani is the opposing starter, does a single Yankee employee — ONE — even ask if it is good to deprive the paying and watching fans of this matchup?
Which brings us to these next few days. At a moment when the former America’s Pastime is trying to reconnect with fans, it has Monday and Tuesday nights alone. No NBA. No NFL. No NHL. It is a moment when the great, magnetic stars of this era can fill up the screen and imaginations. But they can’t do it absent or not participating.
Kudos to Ohtani for seeing the big picture and agreeing to be in the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game. If Ohtani is doing any less than leading off as the starting pitcher Tuesday — showcasing his unique two-way skill set for the world — than it is a demerit for an industry trying so hard to prove it is not just a local sport. Today Ohtani could walk down most streets in America without notice. That can’t be true after Monday and Tuesday.
The same should be true for Guerrero Jr., Tatis Jr. and even Judge. Yes, the Home Run Derby takes something out of players. Then the players should ask for some modification in rules. But this could have been an epic event with those three, Ohtani, Pete Alonso, Joey Gallo, Colorado favorite Trevor Story and Trey Mancini back from cancer. Good for Ohtani, Alonso, Gallo, Story and Mancini for agreeing to compete. But All-Star Monday night is a huge deal. Think about Josh Hamilton, even in a troubled career, having that Monday night at Yankee Stadium. Indelibly. And forever.
But if this continues as it is going, the Derby will become a version of the NBA Dunk Contest with a player barely in the Trail Blazers rotation winning the event. Congrats to the Brewers utility infielder.
And the All-Star Game will edge toward the NFL Pro Bowl with opt-out after opt-out. Guerrero, Tatis and Judge will be in the game. Good. But deGrom is the best pitcher in the world having a historic season. DeGrom versus Ohtani, even for an inning, is terrific theater, great for the game. DeGrom having to navigate a first inning of, say, Ohtani, Judge and Guerrero, who is not finding a way to a TV for that?
But it makes sense for him and the Mets for deGrom not to attend and subject his body not only to extra pitching, but the rigors on the body of playing at altitude in Denver. I get it. It all makes sense. For deGrom. For the others. For their teams.
But how much can the fans be disrespected before they don’t want to vote for All-Stars or watch their game? How long until they opt out too?