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Overwrought Schlock? Priceless

One of my favorite memories of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, non-competition division, occurred three years ago in Boston. Baseball, with the able assistance of its corporate sponsors, was in the process of assembling its All-Century team -- a collection of the greatest players of the past 100 years. To mark the occasion, the league feted many of the All-Century team finalists by having them appear on the field in a pre-game ceremony -- well, the living ones anyhow; Cy Young, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby were otherwise occupied that evening.

It was a nice moment, and not just for baseball geeks like myself. The ceremony was understated, so far as these things go, and the emotions were genuine -- even the ones baseball officials didn't plan for. When newly minted Yankee Roger Clemens was introduced to the Fenway Park crowd, for example, jilted Red Sox fans booed the dead-eyed lummox as if he were an ax murderer.

But the highlight of the evening -- what made this particular moment memorable even three years after the fact -- came at the end when Red Sox great Ted Williams was ushered out onto the field. The crowd exploded, as you might imagine they would for a 17-time All-Star, .344 career hitter, two-time MVP and veteran of two wars. The All-Stars who selected to play that year's game at Fenway Park, too. All too often sweepingly derided by a certain class of lazy sportswriter as self-involved, chemically enhanced greedheads who have little to no appreciation for baseball's past, the players surrounded Williams, talking to him, listening to him, genuinely demonstrating their appreciation for all his accomplishments. It was one of those rare, unscripted moments that stick with you, a lump-in-the-throat event where those of us less secure in our emotions have to pretend like we have something in our eye or that a cloud of pollen has just wafted into the room.

I bring this up because I caught another baseball All-Star Game the other night -- this year's motto: if you like our tie ballgames, you'll love our upcoming work stoppage -- with another pregame ceremony invoking the sport's past. And as spontaneous and heartfelt and wonderful as the Williams moment was in 1999, last Tuesday's pregame festivities were forced and hackneyed and generally awful.

The Tuesday pregame ceremony paid tribute to... well... a credit card ad campaign. But the ad campaign itself focuses on Major League Baseball's 30 most memorable moments. There's a list and everything, and you're supposed to go to MasterCard and vote on the top 5 -- and presumably run up lots of credit card charges and pay usurious interest rates and keep the folks at MBNA fat and happy in these, our troubled economic times.

That last bit isn't part of the promotional material, by the way.

MasterCard's list is a curious mix of moments that seem to be the byproduct of the worst kind of committee work, in which more recent memories take precedence over older ones (only 13 memorable moments occurred before 1970?) and the desire to portray baseball as an igniter of societal and international change leads to just some head-scratching selections (Ichiro Suzuki's rookie season over The Merkle Boner, The Homer in the Gloamin', Reggie Jackson's home run off the light tower at Tiger Stadium?). Babe Ruth, certainly baseball's most memorable player only makes the list twice -- and only one of those entries involves his on-field exploits. Still, that's twice more than Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, Honus Wagner and Bob Feller, who are all MIA.

Baffling choices didn't make Tuesday's pregame ceremony an over-emotive mess, though; bloated execution did. It's like a baseball official watched a tape of the 1999 All-Star Game, turned to his cohorts and said, "You know what, fellas? We're about to toss another postseason into the crapcan thanks to our ongoing, blisteringly stupid labor strife. We've spent the last few years doing our level best to alienate fans from Montreal to Minneapolis. And half of our players could be hopped up on everything from steroids to moose tranquilizers to cough syrup. We need something like that Ted Williams moment from the 1999 All-Star Game to make everyone feel good about the game again. Only this time, let's script every minute detail to make sure we don't miss a moment of spontaneity and joy."

So what you got was narration provided by Ray Liotta, invited to the event presumably because he once appeared in movie about baseball (It good have been worse -- Freddie Prinze Jr., Tony Danza and Charlie Sheen have all appeared in baseball movies recently, and it's a pretty safe bet all three would have been available if asked). You had coma-inducing amounts of purple prose, as Liotta prattled on about baseball weaving its way inexorably through the green fields and amber waves of grain of our imagination as the glory of baseball intersects with indomitable spirit of -- and I'll quote verbatim here -- "our American nation" (as opposed to, say, our Prussian nation or our Prosaic nation or the KISS Army nation). And you had actors dressed like 1930s newspaper reporters running around on the field and people dressed in red, white and blue garb and children -- oh God, the children -- once again proving the scientific axiom that the emotional impact of an event is inversely proportional to the number of children involved.

That's not to say there weren't a few nice moments. I'm a big Henry Aaron fan, so it was nice to see the former Brave and Brewer bask in the prolonged applause of the Milwaukee faithful. Any ceremony that brings Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, Carlton Fisk and Jackie Robinson's grandson to the same ballfield can't be entirely bad. But even potential wonderful moments were rendered hollow by cosmically stupid gestures. The organizers, in their wisdom, opted to have Cal Ripken, baseball's iron man, walk on to the field, surrounded by squealing, jumping children. Same thing with Barry Bonds -- the current holder of the single-season home run record, unless it's been broken while I'm writing this sentence, was encircled by children, one of whom kept screaming loudly and robotically, "You're the best, Barry Bonds!" until the words ceased to have any meaning.

What you wound up with, then, was a giant, sprawling -- and, ultimately, empty -- ceremony that ran so long, it pushed the start of the game itself past 9 p.m. Eastern time, thus ensuring that the current generation of children east of the Mississippi will have little idea who Barry Bonds, let alone why they should scream about how great he is. Thanks in part to the epic-length pregame ceremony, an East Coast viewer would have had to stay up to just before 1 a.m. to see the game through to its conclusion -- kind of a wasted effort since the game did not actually conclude with a winner. And as in past years, Fox's exhaustive coverage of the pregame festivities did not include time for broadcasting the Canadian national anthem; the network cut away to commercial, returning just in time for pop-recording sensation Anastacia to butcher the words to "The Star Spangled Banner."

Hey, Canada, thanks for helping out on that War on Terror and all. We'd love to broadcast your anthem, but we've got product to move and girls club promos to air. Maybe next year. But don't count on it.

Fox didn't do last Tuesday's pregame festivities any favors when, as the hordes of Up With People rejects cleared the field, it cut away to footage of the 1999 All-Star Game featuring the Ted Williams Moment. Perhaps Fox was trying to draw a parallel between the two events -- two All Star games, two moving pregame ceremonies, both on Fox. But all it did was underscore how pedestrian the "30 Greatest Moments Tribute" was, how hollow and jury-rigged the sentiments attached to it were, and how children are best seen and not heard -- and when it comes to pregame ceremonies before major sporting events, neither being seen nor heard is probably for the best.

Most of all, what the juxtaposition of the wonderful, heartfelt Ted Williams All-Star Game tribute and the crummy, maudlin MasterCard-inspired All-Star travesty accomplished was to underscore the power of television. It's a powerful medium, television -- instantaneously, it can beam us images that move us, that captivate us, that inspire our imaginations. And it can do all this to millions of people at once, allowing us to share a collective moment in a way that earlier generations could not even begin to comprehend. In this way, television helps capture great memories, the kind of moments we recall with fondness years later.

And just as easily, television can ruin them.


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