Time to revisit Triple-A All-Star Game

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Jul. 17—In early 2020, my family took a hard-earned — and in hindsight, well-timed — vacation to Southern California. While there, I got to live a personal dream.

We toured Dodger Stadium. I sat in Magic Johnson's seat behind home plate, and leaned on the same post along the dugout steps my favorite player, Don Mattingly, leaned on when he managed the club. I showed my sons where Kirk Gibson took Dennis Eckersley deep in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. We sat in the press box, which admittedly was a bigger deal to the kids than it was to someone who has sat in plenty that were more luxurious. But I got lost in thought, staring into Vin Scully's old radio booth, pondering the tales of our pastime those walls have heard.

Above it all though, there was a bustle that couldn't be ignored. Construction crews working everywhere. Saws and hammers and cranes were in constant use. They were getting the stadium ready for something huge. It wasn't Opening Day, or the arrival of Mookie Betts, the star outfielder they traded for six days earlier, or the World Series they'd end up winning in the fall.

It was the Major League Baseball All-Star Game they were supposed to host that July.

In a city used to putting on entertainment spectacles, it's amazing how much everyone was looking forward to that game. Signs all over town. Improvement projects around the stadium and nearby areas. It was an event circled by the City of Angels, and this week, they finally get to see it. After the 2020 game was canceled because of the pandemic, Dodger Stadium got the 2022 game, which will be played Tuesday.

Certainly, it will be as big an event now as it would have been then.

The fanfare surrounding the midsummer classic got me thinking last week of why we love baseball's All-Star games so much, why they mean so much to communities. It got me thinking, again, of the game that got away from us here.

That same summer, PNC Field was preparing to host the Triple-A All-Star Game. COVID-19 ended that.

We waited a long time for it here, since an epic 1995 game that featured Columbus Clippers shortstop Derek Jeter long before he became a legend. Every seat in Lackawanna County Stadium was filled. Players from the Pacific Coast League we had no chance to see in the regular season were there, putting on a show. It felt new. It felt like a glimpse into the future, in a town that needed both the boost and the national television exposure that game brings.

Professional baseball had been gone from the area for 34 years when the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons returned in 1989. That was 33 years ago. Of all the events that have happened on that baseball diamond since, the 1995 all-star game remains on the short list when it comes to the most meaningful for the area.

The Triple-A All-Star game has had that effect in pretty much every city it has been in, too. It drew sell-out crowds from Buffalo to Las Vegas, Portland to Pawtucket, and Moosic to Tacoma. For minor league baseball, there simply was no better night.

This area, and this franchise, deserved the chance to host that game again a quarter century later.

But this isn't a plea to bring the Triple-A All-Star Game back here. It's a plea to bring it back, period.

That 2020 game at PNC Field was rescheduled to 2022, but it's not happening here or at any other Triple-A city this year. Which, in the business baseball has become, seemed pretty predictable all along.

Since the last Triple-A All-Star Game in 2019, MLB has taken control of the minors and has pretty much slashed from existence anything that costs a buck and doesn't provide any type of direct benefit to major league franchises. Something as fundamental to a season as playoffs are reduced to two games in Triple-A, and franchises and fans are probably lucky they get that. Last year, there were no playoffs.

If the minor league postseason isn't deemed a necessity by MLB, it's difficult to even broach the subject of an all-star game.

After they wrap up their homestand against Louisville today, the RailRiders will take the next four days off, presumably to rest up at the same time most of their big-league counterparts do. Which, I know, is well-earned and long-awaited by players. But if they're taking the time off anyway, it would make sense for MLB to revisit the Triple-A All-Star Game.

Not because it's vital to player development. But because it's important to the communities with which they're working, hand-in-hand, to give these players a total development experience, which should include a chance to play on national television, in an excited city, in front of a group of fans that appreciate the game.

It'd just be nice to have it back. Even if it costs money. Even if it's not convenient. There was a time when neither got in the way of doing what the fans clearly support and enjoy. Baseball needs to get back to some things like that.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.

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