National League cruises in All-Star Game battling tricky identity crisis
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This week the Giants were practically the All-Star Game's lepers, ostracized for not assimilating with the narrative. The prevailing popular opinion was that Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey ought to have been the National League's starting pitcher, a notion further fueled by the New York media machine and by fans who have been inspired by Dickey's born-again baseball career.
Not only did San Francisco starter Matt Cain receive the honor over Dickey (a defensible but hardly obvious decision), but also Cain's teammate, catcher Buster Posey, was unfairly blamed for the decision, owing to the latter's inexperience handling the knuckleball.
Furthermore, the Giants' Pablo Sandoval started at third base over the Mets' David Wright who, by all objective measures, was having the superior season, and San Francisco's Melky Cabrera surprisingly received the most votes among all NL outfielders. The players owed their ballot-box boon to enthusiasm of Giants fans and the organization's energetic marketing which even included a rap song from E-40 (a plan that even Matt Kemp, the centerfielder for the rival Dodgers, admitted was "smart.)"
But those four Giants paced the NL's 8-0 rout of the American League to clinch home-field advantage in the World Series for the Senior Circuit, as Cain threw two scoreless innings and was the game's winning pitcher; Cabrera singled and homered and was named All-Star Game MVP; Sandoval hit a three-run triple; and Posey walked and scored a run while ably catching the first five innings.
Asked if their performances were redemption for the weeklong critiques, Posey said, "I don't look at it that way." Added NL manager Tony La Russa, "I had no problem with the vote. . . . They have a really solid team."
As the name of the event suggests, the players here are all stars. The discrepancy between the best and the worst is noticeable over the course of a season but rarely in nine scant innings of one minimally meaningful game.
"Pitching against All-Stars, someone's liable to get you, and we got to (AL starter Justin Verlander)," La Russa said. "If he pitched against us five more times, he'd hold us scoreless for an inning or two."
In other words, the All-Star Game remains a relative crapshoot. The glorified exhibition is already consolidated to an arcade version of baseball. Players are deployed in roles to which they are unaccustomed: Star sluggers last only a few at-bats before pinch hitters replace them; starting pitchers may only last one inning.
Verlander, for instance, has established himself as the best starter in baseball by blending his otherworldly talent with methodical preparation. The routine he's built depends upon building a rhythm early in the game, even at the expense of some velocity, and only when comfortable -- or in dire need of a jam-ending strikeout -- does he dial it up to his familiar triple digits.
In Tuesday night's All-Star Game, however, the Tigers ace was slated to throw no more than two innings and, wanting to provide the fans the excitement of a triple-digit reading on the radar gun. It backfired, as he allowed five first-inning runs, something he has only done twice in 225 career regular-season and playoff starts.
"I know the fans don't want to see me throw 90 and try to hit the corners," Verlander told reporters. "They like to see the 100-mile-an-hour fastball."
Results or skills? Elected players or the most productive players? Which master should the game serve?
The All-Star Game continues to seek its identity amid conflicting forces. There's the commissioner-mandated importance of the game --
One can argue against one player having one bad inning -- such as Verlander's five-run first inning -- predicating which league will have home-field advantage in the World Series, but at least it wasn't a player whose selection fulfilled the one-player-per-team mandate from a last-place team. No, this was the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner, the ace of one of the preseason favorites to win the AL pennant, who was most responsible for the loss.
And, of course, there's the reality that home-field advantage, though helpful, is hardly insurmountable. It matters less in baseball than any other major sport; a lopsided starting pitching matchup carries far more weight. As La Russa noted, his Cardinals overcame starting each of their first two playoff series on the road last year.
"Well, the commissioner probably is not going to like this answer a whole lot," La Russa said. " . . . If you are an October team, you can overcome that. So it's a nice edge. I'm sure the National League would rather play their home games there. But if you don't have it, you can still win. I mean, it's not a magic bullet. It's just a nice edge."
So is it more important for the Midsummer Classic between two leagues to be a determinant of the location of a game played between two as-yet undetermined teams in October? Or for it to promote the best and brightest baseball has to offer?
Those aren't mutually exclusive intentions. Giving meaning to the outcome of the game has seemed to improve the attendance of the selected players and the quality of their play therein. But it's more of a secondary purpose.
Though the competitiveness of Tuesday's game deflated quickly given the early lopsided margin, the fans still saw a lot of what they wanted to see. That, of course, must be foremost or else the league wouldn't give fans the suffrage to pick who plays.
And there were several fan-friendly moments, along with a single from Braves third baseman Chipper Jones in the final All-Star Game of his Hall of Fame career; appearances and excitement from rookie sensations Mike Trout of the Angels and AL and Bryce Harper of the Nationals and the NL. Both reached base -- Harper on a walk; Trout on a single and walk -- and both had other adventures too, as Harper misplayed a fly ball and Trout stole a base. And, locally, the Kansas City fans showered Royals designated hitter Billy Butler with a thunderous ovation for his two plate appearances after a perceived snub in not being selected for the Home Run Derby.
The All-Star Game shouldn't worry too much about its identity crisis and instead should embrace its role merely as an entertaining diversion in the middle of the long season -- and a substitute for a coin flip to see where October baseball is played.