Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What an All-Star spectacle


Anyone who says the NBA All-Star Game, or the Pro Bowl, or the NHL All-Star Game is better than baseball's version is crazier than a North-Pole nudist.

And they definitely didn't see the amazing spectacle that was Tuesday night's final All-Star Game inside fabled Yankee Stadium. The American League's 15-inning, 4-3 victory was so full of drama, I hallucinated and saw October leaves outside the window.

The drama had nothing to do with the inane rule that grants the winning league's World Series representative home-field advantage in late October, either. The drama still would have been there without it. (And, by the way, the rule is ludicrous; it isn't needed, and the team with the better regular-season record deserves home-field, although I don't think playing at home is a big advantage in baseball anyway.)

Unlike other sports' all-star spectacles, baseball people actually take their game very seriously. And that, in itself, makes the game special. Before Tuesday's contest, National League manager Clint Hurdle said it was a "must-win" for his league, which had dropped 10 straight Midsummer Classics -- with a 2002, Bud Selig-induced tie thrown in.

A "must-win" all-star game? Never heard that before.

And then the game started. And it was brilliant. It was a true celebration of the amazing players from both leagues, but at the same time it was a great game between two sides determined to win. It was full of strategy, as both managers -- as they ran out of players, most urgently pitchers -- had to make difficult decisions. Players even bunted!

The image that will stick with me is that of American League skipper Terry Francona joyously throwing his arms up in relief and then hugging a surprised Jim Leyland -- all while showcasing a huge smile -- after Justin Morneau just barely slid in safely to end the game on Michael Young's sacrafice fly.

How crazy is this? Francona appeared just as excited as when the Red Sox won World Series titles in 2004 and '07. Wow.

But he had good reason to be juiced. He was down to his last pitcher, Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir, and he didn't want to pitch Kazmir. The Rays' stud had thrown more than 100 pitches Sunday, and Boston's A.L. East rival wants to use its ace again Saturday. So it was a huge quagmire for Franconia, who is a classy guy and would never want to jepordize another team's chances in the second half of the season because of a manegerial decision.

Tell me another all-star game in which a situation like that might arise?

Hurdle was in the same boat. When Morneau scored, he was down to his last pitcher -- and that guy was Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who isn't normally used for more than one inning. If the game had gone one or two more frames, Hurdle was prepared to give the ball to Mets third baseman David Wright.

How cool would that have been?

But strategy aside, the play on the field was what set this game apart. Maybe the players were touched by the elaborate, well-done pregame ceremony in which they were introduced alongside a large throng of Hall-of-Famers who stood by their respective positions on the field. Maybe it was the legend of Yankee Stadium, which couldn't have experienced a better All-Star sendoff than this one. Whatever the case may be, the late innings Tuesday night were chock-full of enough drama and clutch play to last a week.

There was Tampa Bay rookie Evan Longoria looping a low-and-inside pitch down the left-field line for a game-tying , two-out double in the eighth inning. That tied the score 3-3. It wouldn't change for a couple hours.

It easily could have, though, several times. There was the Texas duo of Ian Kinsler and Young sending off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera with a perfect outing thanks to a huge double play that ended a National League rally in the 10th inning -- the N.L. had a runner on third base.

Than, in the bottom half of the frame, there was Colorado's Aaron Cook somehow getting out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam by inducing three consecutive groundballs, the first two of which were thrown home for the forceout. I hadn't seen that in years.

The A.L. came right back, however, in the bottom of the 11th swinging, and it looked like it would claim the victory on a single off the bat of Young. But there was the lone Pittsburgh Pirate Nate McLouth throwing a dart to catcher Russell Martin, who cleanly caught the short scoop and applied the tag on Dioner Navarro.

Play on!

There were more scoring chances, more runners on third base, more clutch defensive plays until Young finally ended it -- and the scattered fans remaining in the stadium's blue seats could depart. As for the fans who departed early, I'm sorry, but you're crazy. If I were lucky enough to score a ticket, there's no way I would have left prematurely.

What a game it was, and how appropriate was the venue?

Modern all-star games are flooded by celebrities, by people without rooting interests. This makes the crowds boring, quiet and, simply, not caring about much of what is transpiring in front of them. The NBA All-Star Game is a prime example.

But somehow a large throng of Yankees fans got into Tuesday's game, and -- love 'em or hate 'em -- they made their presence felt. The crowd was actually loud, actually boisterous, actually into the game. When Boston's Jonathan Papelbon entered the game in the eighth inning, he was booed. Who gets booed at an all-star event? And when Rivera took the mound in the ninth, he received a standing ovation.

With "Mariano Rivera" chants, among others, lasting well into the night, the stadium never lost the edge that has made it so special for 85 years. October -- wait, it's July? -- was in the air.

What one can take from Tuesday's spectacle regardless of when the TV was turned off is this: Baseball clearly has the best all-star game of America's major sports.

The NBA stars don't play defense for much of the game, instead catering to those who wish for highligh-reel dunks. I would love to watch just one NBA All-Star Game where the players try on defense for 48 minutes.

The Pro Bowl is after the Super Bowl. Need I say more?

I can't even name more than five of hockey's best players, so I won't go there.

But baseball's Midsummer Classic remains a special game. Not only do you get to see the game's best players congregate for one night -- with each of them wearing his own team's uniform -- but they all try their hardest both at the plate and in the field. They all take the game seriously. And so do their managers and bench coaches.

And when a game like Tuesday's is finally over, with the clock ticking toward 2 a.m. in New York, all you have to do is look at the facial expressions of the winners to know that the 4 hours, 50 minutes spent on the field was far from a waste of time.

1 comment:

Sportsattitude said...

Jake, I admittedly would be content if all pro sports all-star games went away. That being said, the recent edition of baseball's get-together was indeed a compelling television event. It certainly was neat to see such a memorable game at the final year of Yankee Stadium - I do feel that was a big part of the drama. The one thing I would pick on, as I always do, is the long-drawn out ceremonies...which just make it next to impossible for most fans on the East Coast to stay up and watch the game...especially the little ones. I think too much time is spent trying to dig up the past and that just makes the game look "old" and less-appealing to the younger fan. Better we see features about the stars of today than the wheelchair stars of yesterday. But a great game it was.