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Powers: Baseball’s All-Star Game stands apart from its peers

 St. Paul - It’s why Torii Hunter launched himself at the center-field wall to catch a Barry Bonds drive in 2002. It’s why Pete Rose barreled into catcher Ray Fosse, creating a tremendous and now world-famous collision, in the 12th inning of the 1970 game at Riverfront Stadium.

And it’s why 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson unleashed a 98 mph fastball directly over the helmet of John Kruk during the 1993 game at Camden Yards. What a show: Two goofy-looking guys sporting mullets – and with no chance of ever being invited on “The Bachelorette,” or even “The Dating Game” – squaring off in prime time.

Despite the changes to both the game and culture, Major League Baseball’s Midsummer Classic remains head and shoulders above All-Star games in other sports. It’s the only one in which the participants actually try. There still is league pride involved, probably fueled by the game’s great traditions.

Quickly, name a truly memorable moment from an NFL Pro Bowl? Yes, well, you are even less likely to be able to name one from an NBA or NHL All-Star contest. Even if you’re not a nostalgia buff, baseball’s All-Star Game holds appeal because there is real competition involved.

Ballplayers are unfettered by the contrived rules, unspoken traditions and gentlemen’s agreements found at All-Star games in other sports. So they dive for baseballs, barrel into second to try to break up double plays, and go all out all the time.

All this is as opposed to, say, the NFL Pro Bowl, which has more safety features than a Japanese subcompact. No blitzing, no kick returns, no tackling without saying “Mother, may I …”

Meanwhile, it’s considered un-American to play defense in an NBA All-Star Game. That’s why the final scores usually look like something from an old ABA contest between the San Diego Conquistadors and Baltimore Claws – 142-138.

There’s an unspoken no-touch rule in the NHL All-Star Game. I don’t mean on icing. I mean with regards to each other. It’s a pure Euro-skatefest. Which, now that I think of it, mirrors regular NHL games. Although during the season, someone might bump into an opposing skater by accident – and then have to deal with a four-game suspension.

Baseball’s All-Star Game remains the real deal, and some of us are surprised. When baseball went to interleague play in 1997, the allure of this exhibition appeared to be dead. To that point, the leagues had just two real opportunities to measure up against each other, the All-Star Game and the World Series. Each meeting seemed extra special.

So we had our memories of Reggie Jackson knocking one off the transformer at Tiger Stadium in 1971, young Fernando Valenzuela using his screwball to strike out Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson and George Brett in one inning during the 1984 game, and an entire mental index file cataloguing the exploits of the old-timers such as Ruth, Mantle and Feller. But now what?

With the advent of interleague play in ’97, everything seemed about to change. At the time, baseball still was suffering from the aftereffects of the disastrous 1994-95 strike. Angry fans boycotted the games. Attendance and TV ratings were way down. Something had to be done to bring the people back. Interleague play was one of the gimmicks, although I’d argue that turning a blind eye to steroid-gobbling home run hitters played the biggest part in getting fans back into the seats.

Anyway, the All-Star Game appeared doomed to irrelevancy. Yet the most amazing thing happened: The great moments kept coming. There was Cal Ripken Jr. homering in his last all-star appearance in 2001. And Tony Gwynn helping to steady an aging Ted Williams as Teddy Ballgame threw the ceremonial first all-star pitch at Fenway Park in 1999.

And remember Ichiro’s fly ball taking a funny bounce off the wall at AT&T Park in 2007 and resulting in the only inside-the-park homer in all-star history? There’s even the ingrained image of a dour Bud Selig standing at his box seat and declaring the 2002 game over after 11 innings and the score at 7-7. A tie!

The game goes on, the special moments keep occurring. MLB has done a nice job of including the fans in the selection process and of turning the game into a multi-day event, complete with the wildly popular home run derby. The notion of playing for World Series home field advantage is silly and unnecessary, although I’m sure the Twins are fired up about it.

All in all, it’s still a great time, and there’s always a chance that something unforgettable will happen. Like that time in the Pro Bowl when … wait, it will come to me.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.