Ball Stars

July 1, 2004 by  
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On July 13, rain or shine, Houston will host the 75th All-Star Game in a contest “nobody likes but the fans.” And the fans do love this annual baseball game between the best players in the American and National Leagues. From all over the world, they vote by the millions (as luck would have it, the one-millionth vote cast online this year was done by an Aggie: James Leggett, 18, of Houston), and they flock to the stadiums and watch the game on TV.

This is the third time Houston has hosted this annual classic, and the city is rolling out the Reds carpet (and the Pirates, Yankees, etc.), making the game almost as big a deal as the Super Bowl. To celebrate the event, 33 sets of Texas-size cowboy boots have been placed around the downtown area. The name of the street Avenida de las Americas, which runs into Minute Maid Park, has been temporarily changed to All-Star Avenue.

The game is on a Tuesday night, but the partying starts the Friday before. In the George R. Brown Convention Center there will be a Fanfest, sort of like the NFL Experience, where the fans can test their baseball skills. Plus, there will be players, baseball officials and other VIPs hanging around to talk baseball talk and sign autographs, or so the hype says. On Monday, the day before the game, the best sluggers in baseball will go to the park for a Home Run Contest. For fans who can’t get into the actual All-Star Game, this pre-game hit-fest will be a chance to see many of the players in person.

Money taken in from the Fanfest and the Home Run Contest are going to charities, but income from the game itself, including broadcasting rights, goes to Major League Baseball, which, in turn, puts some of the money into the players’ pension funds.

Speaking of money, there are estimates that the game will have an “economic impact” in Texas of $85.6 million. This is a shadowy number. For the Super Bowl, the NFL paraded a $300 million figure, but when you peeled it down, the take for Houston was nothing like that. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn came up with that $85.6 million figure for the All-Star Game. She says 30,000 out-of-state baseball fans will spend an average of $316 per day during their stay. That totals $30.5 million, with the organizing committee’s expenses, promotion and other expenses associated with hosting the event adding another $6.3 million in direct “economic impact.”

This breaks down to lodging ($9.1 million), restaurants ($6.2 million), merchandise and retail sales ($7.7 million), bars and entertainment ($5.7 million), and local transportation expenses ($1.8 million). Out-of-state visitor and support spending will result in a total direct economic benefit of $36.8 million for Texas. Secondary or “multiplier” effects on visitor-related industries, local earnings and “induced” household spending will bring total economic impact up to $85.6 million.

Counting fans coming to the Houston area from other parts of Texas, the local area economy will see 67,000 visitors for the All-Star Week activities. The city of Houston has put up $590,000 on game-related costs, and under a new Texas law the state could contribute up to $3.7 million. Then Trees for Houston came up with $78,000 for beautification, which makes the state pay as much as $4.18 million. The mayor’s office figures a six-to-one return, so for every $100,000 the city spends it will get back $600,000. Suffice it to say that Houston is better off hosting the All-Star Game than having it in, say, Milwaukee, but don’t get too greedy about the elusive Big Bux. As for “You can’t buy that kind of publicity” – yes, you can.

This most interesting July contest has been played every year since 1933 (with the exception of the war year of 1945, although there were three years, 1959-61, in which they played two games). But the game almost didn’t come about since the concept was thought up by someone outside of baseball.

Arch Ward, a sports editor at the Chicago Tribune, hatched the idea as an added attraction to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. According to “The Midsummer Classic” by David Vincent, Lyle Spatz and David W. Smith, Ward suggested to his bosses at the Tribune that he enlist 55 sports reporters at 55 other newspapers scattered about the country to help fans vote for the best players. The players receiving the most votes in each position would meet in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, with all gate receipts going to a charity – the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America.

The Tribune bosses thought that was an absurd idea, since in the competitive world of journalism no paper would want to help publicize another paper. Every one of the 55 reporters accepted the idea, showing once again that newspaper publishers know nothing about journalism. Ward’s idea was unique: Stopping play for several days in the middle of a sport’s season so that the very best players could gather to get tired and maybe hurt and be out for the rest of the year. For this reason, virtually all of baseball’s owners and managers were against holding an All-Star Game.

Sam Breadon of St. Louis said what all the other owners thought: Staging such an event with all the money going to charity “might set a precedent.” Sam was told not to worry since it was a one-time event.

Since then, the All-Star Game has seen its share of ups and downs. The second All-Star Game will be remembered for the Giants’ Carl Hubbell successively striking out five of the most feared hitters in the history of baseball including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Foxx in one-two-three order. The crowd went wild.

Conversely, the 2002 game in Milwaukee went down in ignominy when, after 11 innings, Commissioner Bud Selig (who, ironically, owned the Milwaukee team) called an end to a 7-7 tie only to be met by booing fans chanting, “Let them play! After the game Selig told reporters, “This is not the way I wanted this to end. It’s the first time it’s ever happened. It’s very regrettable and very sad.”

The latest notable change was inaugurated last year to answer criticism that the game is still meaningless and managers are still afraid their very best players will be hurt. What’s more, their best pitchers, instead of getting a few needed days of rest in the pennant race, were traveling to some other city to pitch an inning or so and were too tired to take their spot in their team’s pitching rotation when the season resumed. Selig announced that whichever league won the All-Star Game would host the first games of that year’s World Series, thus giving the winning league a slight advantage.

That’s where the Midsummer Classic stands now, so play ball!

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