With the various sideshows surrounding it — the Futures Game, the Home Run Derby, media day, the mascot race, pictures of delectable barbecue feasts in seemingly every credentialed writer's Twitter timeline — now in the books, the All-Star Game will take place tonight in Kansas City. For all of the hoopla and "this time it counts" silliness, here are five things I'm looking forward to tonight.
1. The All-Star debuts of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. The game's two brightest prospects have taken their respective leagues by storm since both were promoted to the majors in April 28. The 20-year-old Trout has hit .341/.397/.562 with 12 homers for the Angels since then; he leads the league in batting average and stolen bases (26), has made perhaps the season's best catch and is a legitimate MVP candidate for a team that has stormed back into contention after a slow start. The 19-year-old Harper has hit .282/.354/.472 with eight homers for a team with the NL's top record, and he's won over players and fans with a hard-nosed, no-nonsense style that's completely at odds with the media hype and reports of immaturity that surrounded his rise through the minors. Cole Hamels, who notoriously plunked Harper as part of a misguided "old school" welcome — only to be shown up when Harper stole home off him — now admits his admiration, and even Chipper Jones has copped to having "a man-crush" on the phenom. Named to the squad to replace the injured Giancarlo Stanton, Harper is the youngest position player in All-Star history, and along with Bob Feller and Dwight Gooden, one of only three teenagers to make a roster. Trout is in good company among 20-year-olds, a list that includes Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ivan Rodriguez. The two players should have several All-Star appearances ahead of them, but seeing them make it for the first time is nonetheless special.
2. Robinson Cano's reception. Chosen as the captain of the AL squad in the Home Run Derby — which meant he could select three other players — Cano was placed in a difficult position when he bypassed the Royals' Billy Butler in favor of adding the Angels' Mark Trumbo, along with the Blue Jays' Jose Bautisa and the Tigers' Prince Fielder. Never mind that Butler's 16 homers are tied for 16th in the league behind Bautista (tied for first at 27 homers), Trumbo (tied for sixth at 22) and Cano (tied for eighth at 20) or ahead of proven Derby veteran and eventual winner Prince Fielder (tied for 18th at 15). Never mind that Trumbo put on as entertaining a show as any hitter on either side, with the Derby's longest shot at an estimated 490 feet, or that the Butler-less AL group outhomered the NL by a 61-21 margin and produced the top three finishers. The fans in Kansas City were aggrieved by the snub of Butler to the point that a local radio station even hired an airplane towing a banner that read, "CONGRATS BILLY! YOU BLEW IT CANO." When Cano came to bat, he was booed mercilessly by the Kauffman Stadium crowd, his every out cheered, adding an ugly edge to what was otherwise a typically light-hearted affair. Perhaps rattled by the reception or fatigued from flying in at 4:30 a.m. after Sunday night's Yankees-Red Sox grind, he didn't hit a single homer.
Cano, a four-time All-Star as well as last year's Derby winner, is obviously better than that. I'd like to think that the fans in Kauffman Stadium are as well, so I'm hopeful that they turn their frowns upside-down when the second baseman is introduced, and when he comes to bat for the first time in the bottom of the first inning (he's batting second). Whatever the All-Star Game is for, it's not supposed to be an anger-fueled outlet for disgruntled hometown fans.
3. The entry of the R.A. Dickey-Carlos Ruiz battery. Based upon his unprecedented success with his hard knuckleball, which until the past week had him leading the league in all three "Triple Crown" categories (wins, strikeouts and ERA) as well as WAR and WARP, Dickey was this writer's choice to start for the NL team. Alas, manager Tony La Russa tabbed the Giants' Matt Cain instead, with the Giants' wish not to force starting catcher Buster Posey to catch the knuckler allegedly factoring into the decision; by Posey's own admission, he's never caught one. So instead the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz will catch Dickey. Ruiz — who with an MVP-caliber line of .350/.412 /584 (fourth in the NL in each category) had a strong case to be starting ahead of Posey — has at least some experience catching a knuckler, having worked with Jared Fernandez in Triple-A back in 2005. He'll warm up Dickey, and enter the game with him in the fifth or sixth inning. I look forward to seeing how the pair fares with each other and against NL hitters.
4. The return of Tony La Russa. I'll admit to not being the biggest fan of "the Genius," but there's no denying his spot in baseball history, with 2,728 wins (third all-time), 14 playoff appearances, six pennants, three world championships and a record of innovation — one-inning closers, specialist relievers, expanding pitching staffs, pitchers batting eighth — to the point of exasperation. Though he retired after the Cardinals' World Series victory last fall, the Cooperstown-bound La Russa earned the right to manage the NL squad, and while one can quibble with the choices he made for his roster and his starting pitcher, one can't deny that he's well-equipped to use his bloated 34-man roster to best advantage. So in a perverse way, I'm looking forward to seeing him pull off at least one more double-switch, and/or a three-pitcher inning, with the likes of southpaws Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez, Wade Miley or Aroldis Chapman reduced to the role of lefty specialist. Call it overmanaging, but nobody in this day and age has shown the knack for getting more out of his roster for a single game than La Russa. 5. A Tim Raines moment from a reserve. I can't claim to have seen every All-Star game since my first one in 1978, but in three-plus decades of watching the Midsummer Classic, few players have left a more indelible impression via a single-game performance than Raines in 1987. In a season where his debut was forestalled by baseball's collusion scandal — he couldn't play until May 1, having passed an artificially-created deadline to re-sign with the Expos, and he collected four hits including a game-winning grand slam in his first game back — Raines wasn't elected to be a starter. He entered a scoreless game in place of Eric Davis in the bottom of the sixth inning, and proceeded to go 3-for-3. He nearly scored the game's first run in the bottom of the ninth after singling, stealing second and advancing to third on an error, but Dwight Evans made a strong one-hop throw home on a potential sacrifice fly, and he was stranded at third. He singled again in the 11th to no avail, then drove in the game's only two runs with a two-out triple in the top of the 13th inning. For that, he was named the game's MVP, serving as a reminder that while the focus is on the starters, the game's hero could be somebody who comes off the bench to provide a late-inning thrill.