Overcast 51° Good Evening
Overcast 51° Good Evening

Wendel: Remember when ball players knew the fans?

"No sport has tried harder than Major League Baseball to have its All-Star Game actually matter," writes Tim Wendel. Photo Credit: Mark Weber/Tribune Media Services

Baseball's midseason classic is tonight, and we're reminded how problematic such all-star games have become.

The National Football League begrudgingly decided to bring back its Pro Bowl for at least another year. The National Hockey League has tried multiple formats, with the captains most recently choosing up sides. And the National Basketball Association has turned its All-Star weekend into part-party, part-skills contest with the actual game often an afterthought.

No sport has tried harder than Major League Baseball to have its All-Star Game actually matter.

After a tie game in 2002, it was decided that the winning side would have home-field advantage in the World Series. But even raising the stakes hasn't made this game as memorable as when a young Ted Williams won it with a walk-off home run in 1941 or even when Alex Rodriguez called for Cal Ripken to return to his old position of shortstop in 2001.

The problem here doesn't have anything to do with format or the winner's share. Rather it's about how the relationship between the players and fans has changed so dramatically in recent years.

Today the latest highlights about a favorite player or team are just a click away on the Internet, or we can catch it almost hourly on ESPN. We can watch those images over and over again, but such images don't bring our sports heroes into any better focus.

Not that long ago, our sports stars still lived among us. Willie Mays played stickball with the kids on the streets of New York and Johnny Unitas had a catch with those in his old Baltimore neighborhood. Before the money ballooned into the stratosphere, professional players often lived in our communities. They were still among us.

When I was writing "Summer of '68," I was struck by how much tighter the bond between the players and fans was back then.

In Detroit, for example, Tigers outfielder Willie Horton single-handedly tried to stop the riots of 1967 that shook the Motor City to its core. His teammate Mickey Lolich, along with many other ballplayers from that era, served in the National Guard.

In so many ways, they were one of us.

Compare that with today's stars. Often they can tell us about their personal path to the top, how they excelled in a particular system or under specific coach.

But ask them whose footsteps they are following and most don't have a clue. As Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard said, "Today's athletes are all about their personal journey and, as a result, they often have a limited sense of place."

How important is this? Novelist Eudora Welty contended that for something to be truly understood and even treasured, it needed to have a setting that was "named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting." If not, she added, the stories and the people involved in them can become unrecognizable.

In 1968, Willie Horton had no interest in living in a "bubble," as many of today's ballplayers do. After the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in that tragic year, he made a conscious decision to reach out instead of drawing away. When the team went on the road, he made friends in every port. Good enough friends that he could give them a call if he wanted to -- perhaps sit down for dinner together.

"What I was doing was making sure that I had a home everywhere I went playing ball," he told me decades later. "In 1968 especially, that's how I got by." Decades later, Horton continues to reach out. At the Tigers' downtown ballpark in Detroit, where Horton works in the front office, he will often take a walk about Comerica Park at the start of a new homestand.

As Horton shakes another hand, asks how somebody else's family is doing, you wish more of today's players could witness this. How by reaching out, remaining a part of a community, the athletes and the rest of us can gain so much.