Opinion: After a year's absence, MLB All-Star Game is a refreshing diversion from baseball's lingering issues

DENVER — After 17 months spent under a mask, Major League Baseball is emerging from the shadows this week at Coors Field.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the industry, it gathers en masse, largely vaxxed and almost entirely unmasked, for the 91st All-Star Game. And from Sunday’s Futures Game, to an undeniably momentous Home Run Derby, to Tuesday’s exhibition of youth excellence and veteran vigor, the air of renewal will be undeniable.

Never underestimate the power of a bro hug, an old acquaintance renewed, even a knowing nod from across the field. The league and its very best players are uniting in a way they haven’t since 2019, which was followed by a year in which this event did not exist, and the World Series barely did.

The joys will be higher, the woes more easily laughed off.

This will be an All-Star Game like no other, for so many reasons. Shohei Ohtani may command everyone’s attention from Tokyo to Temecula from the moment he launches his first moonshot into the Mile High air in the Home Run Derby. So many of the young kings ready to take over the game — from Tati to Vladito — are here, starting and ready for a star turn. And MLB now knows the hard part of pandemic baseball is behind it — more than 85% of all Tier 1 and 2 personnel across the league is fully vaccinated.

Yet as the game’s jewel event takes on its usual shine, the clouds — some passing, others gathering — will be hard to ignore, not unlike the smoke from the Morgan Creek Wildfire that made the sky above Denver on Sunday something less than an impeccably glorious blue.

Start with the absences, both numerous and significant.

They get no more devastating than Ronald Acuña Jr., off to another MVP-caliber start, voted in by the fans but now shelved for the remainder of 2021 after tearing his right ACL, barely 24 hours before he was to depart for Denver.

Acuña’s injury was the most severe and noteworthy in a season defined by them; after two months, soft tissue injuries were up 160% and oblique tears and strains 83% over the last full season. The whys of this injury scourge are still unknown, but the smart money remains more collateral damage from 2020, which featured two spring trainings, a herky-jerky 60-game sprint and then a full spring training a few months later.

Appreciate your health, folks.

Coors Field last hosted the All-Star Game in 1998.
Coors Field last hosted the All-Star Game in 1998.

Speaking of which, a handful of All-Stars are doing just that this week — staying home to nurse myriad maladies, be they tangible, lingering or on a more visceral level.

Jacob de Grom wanted to spend some time at home, and also had a pair of nagging injuries. Buster Posey busted a thumb, while fellow Hall of Fame caliber talents Mookie Betts and Yadier Molina saw All-Star discretion as the better part of regular season valor. Kyle Schwarber’s stunning home run binge ended with the tug of a hamstring.

In all, 17 players elected by fans or players or named by the league to rosters will be sitting out, most due to injury, a handful because they pitched Sunday.

We’re not about to attendance-shame anybody for skipping an All-Star Game in the year 2021. After that hell of a 2020, we’re all still catching our breath, so imagine competing on an everyday basis at the level these chaps do, only to learn your lone four-day leave would be consumed by a game that doesn’t count.

But let’s talk about the Astros.

They are arguably the best team in the American League — overwhelmingly so based on run differential — and have reached at least the AL Championship Series four consecutive years. Royalty, still, even if impugned by scandal.

They earned four All-Star selections. They will be represented here by nobody.

Carlos Correa claimed family time with a pregnant wife before falling ill this weekend. Reliever Ryan Pressly’s wife is due any day. Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley?

Both started Sunday’s game against the Yankees, Brantley playing his sixth consecutive game and Altuve appearing unimpeded by a leg injury. Start your conspiracy theories that the Astros wanted to avoid further scorn from fans for a mere exhibition game. Their absences were only exacerbated Sunday, when Altuve hit a startling three-run, walk-off home run off Yankees reliever Chad Green, then clapped back at Aaron Judge by tearing his shirt off, throwing some more kerosene on BuzzerGate.

It was phenomenal theatre. It would have made a fantastic talking point this week. But the Astro at the center of it all will be invisible.

Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve celebrate Sunday's win against the Yankees.
Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve celebrate Sunday's win against the Yankees.

That the Astros’ intentions might bear greater scrutiny only shows how fresh the wounds of their 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal remain.

“They need it badly,” manager Dusty Baker said of the break, defending his guys who did their cheating long before he was their manager.

Trouble is, there’s just no ducking this. The other night, former Astro George Springer slipped into Baltimore incognito — attired in a powder blue Toronto jersey. A crowd of barely 7,000 that had no direct tie to the sign-stealing kerfuffle suddenly roared to life with boos.

Rather go to the All-Star Game next year? Well, that one’s at Dodger Stadium, where the home folks are still a little salty over the now-disputed 2017 World Series title.

It was just three years ago that the Astros sent a six-pack of players to Washington for the All-Star Game. Justin Verlander chartered a jet for five of them. They performed the #InMyFeelings challenge. Alex Bregman twerked.

Crazy to imagine that group suddenly receding from the spotlight.

We’re four years removed from that scandal, two years removed from its revelation by The Athletic, yet the ripples don’t stop. Tuesday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will hold his first expansive press briefing since Feb. 18, 2020, when he apologized for days earlier calling the World Series trophy “a piece of metal,” an inelegant defense of his discipline handed down for the scandal.

Shortly thereafter, the pandemic shut it all down.

Manfred made a few appearances since, a CNN spot here, a phone interview there, perhaps some carefully crafted comments at a gathering of eggheads at sports business seminars or university panels or whatnot. The pandemic has since receded but Manfred’s plate remains full, what with his sticky substances crackdown, franchise instability in a pair of markets and the noxious cloud of Trevor Bauer’s administrative leave and alleged assault lingering over a league facing the most important test of its domestic-violence policy yet.

Oh, and lest we forget, everyone’s supposed to be in Atlanta right now. That's before Manfred’s unilateral relocation to Denver after the state of Georgia passed a set of onerous laws that historically have led to suppressing the votes of minorities. (Listen hard for all the people who claimed they’d vigorously un-watch all the festivities this week. Watch the crack of Ohtani’s bat lure them away from the conspiracy fever swamps).

They’re not here and neither is Bauer, mercifully. Ohtani and Tatis and Guerrero Jr. and 50,000 grateful fans each night will be.

It won’t be perfect, but as first steps out into the sunlight go, it will certainly do.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB All-Star Game's 2021 return is a refreshing diversion for baseball