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A New Act In Jeter's Last Season, Before Dwindling All-Star Audience


Baseball's All-Star Game is tonight at Target Field in Minneapolis - home of the Twins. The American League will face the National League and the winner claims home-field advantage for the World Series. Tonight is also part of a farewell tour for a certain Yankee.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now batting for the Yankees, number two, Derek Jeter - number two.

SIEGEL: That's from a Nike tribute ad in which even Red Sox fans grudgingly tipped their hats to number two, Derek Jeter. And to talk about the baseball happenings this week in Minnesota, we're joined by Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, who's at the stadium. Welcome to the program.

TIM KURKJIAN: Thank you, nice to be here.

SIEGEL: Last year's All-Star Game celebrated the impending retirement of Mariano Rivera, this year it's Derek Jeter. Is the All-Star Game starting to feel a little funereal?

KURKJIAN: Well, last year was great with Mariano Rivera. I was a dugout reporter last year. I interviewed him right after he came off the field after that tremendous tribute, and he had tears in his eyes. And then I interviewed him again after the game when he was named the MVP of the All-Star Game, and he had tears in his eyes again. So I wouldn't call it funereal, I would call it powerful and I expect similar things tonight with the goodbye to Derek Jeter.

SIEGEL: Tim, I want to ask you about All-Star viewing. It used to be - 30, 40 years ago - that 30 million people would watch the All-Star Game on television. Five years ago, it was down to half that - under 15 million, last year, about 11 million. Why does the game keep losing audience?

KURKJIAN: Well, I think people have a lot of other things to do these days, and I think that's unfortunate because to me, this is the best All-Star Game of any of the four major sports. And I can remember - I'm old enough to have watched those All-Star games years and years ago and it was an absolute highlight of the summer. But maybe because we have a million games on every night and half the people in the world seemingly have the baseball package, where you can watch nine games every night or whatever you like, this is just another game to some people, which is unfortunate because to me it's much more than another game. It's the All-Star Game. And it's still great, but people aren't watching like they used to.

SIEGEL: Is it undercut by the fact of interleague play - that this isn't the one game during the season when players from the National and American Leagues get to face each other?

KURKJIAN: Yeah, I think interleague play has done something to that, but I think it's more the free agency situation where - there was a day and it was 30 years ago basically, where there were National League players and they were proud of it. There were American League players and they were proud of it.

Pete Rose used to meet the National League players at the door of the clubhouse and tell them, we're going to win again this year. You know that, right? That's what we're going to do. Well, that doesn't happen anymore. And I think that's part of it - that we've lost sense of the two leagues and therefore the All-Star Game isn't exactly what it used to be when it comes to that.

SIEGEL: Now, another point - also honored at today's game, the late Glenn Burke. Not a household name, but he was a gay baseball player over 30 years ago in a sport that has no gay players today who are out. Tell us about what the league's doing.

KURKJIAN: Well, the league is trying to make sure that everyone understands that gay players certainly are welcome in Major League Baseball, and therefore if a player were to come out, it would not be a huge deal. This is going to be a nice tribute to Glenn Burke, who showed great courage in coming out at any point. And it's Major League Baseball saying we are going to be with them, we are not going to shun them if a gay player comes out. And I think obviously that's the right thing to do.

SIEGEL: Just out of curiosity, compared to other professional sports, do you think Major League Baseball locker rooms are especially hostile or unhostile to gay players?

KURKJIAN: I personally think they're going to be better toward the gay player because frankly, you spend more time in the clubhouse in baseball than you do in football, basketball and hockey. There are more games, there is more time together. So if there were a gay player in baseball, I think they would say he's one of us more than the other sports because you're with those guys more than you're with your family during the season.

SIEGEL: Well, Tim Kurkjian, thanks for talking with us today.

KURKJIAN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Tim Kurkjian of ESPN speaking with us about the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.