ST. LOUIS -- Be thankful we have the National League All-Star team, in the same way you should be thankful for Lou Costello, Gilligan, Charlie Brown, the Washington Generals and, OK, the Washington Nationals, too. The All-Star Game is way cool again, and not just because World Series home-field advantage is on the line or because the President of the United States showed up to fling the first pitch in a pair of blue jeans and fresh kicks (believed to be a presidential wardrobe first; don't even try to get your mind around William Howard Taft in Levi's). No, the NL's streak of futility is exactly the narrative to keep the game interesting.
The NL has not won an All-Star Game since 1996, in a stadium that long ago was blown up (Veterans Stadium) and with only three players who remain active in the league today. It was so long ago Barack Obama had yet to be elected to any kind of office. It was so long ago that NL outfielder Justin Upton has no memory of it. He was playing shortstop for the Virginia Blasters then. That's a youth travel team. He was eight years old.
"We'll get a team to beat them," Upton said. "It just has to happen."
Poor, idealistic kid. Listen, Gilligan never was getting off the island, but we watched every episode anyway for the sheer entertainment value of which humorously entertaining manner he wasn't getting rescued. A fleet of Coast Guard cutters might be anchored off shore and we knew it wasn't going to end well for Gilligan. So it goes when the NL takes on the AL.
The NL was leading the All-Star Game Tuesday night 3-2 after two innings. The scriptwriters call this the setup. The game was tied in the seventh when NL outfielder Brad Hawpe hit a ball over the left-field wall -- except that Carl Crawford of the AL reached above the wall and turned a home run into an out.
The very next inning, not far from the spot of Crawford's magic trick, Upton, the NL left fielder, turned an out into a triple, essentially running the wrong pass pattern -- down-and-up rather than a deep post -- on a floater hit by Curtis Granderson. Adam Jones knocked in Granderson with a fly ball for what turned out to be the winning run.
The losing pitcher, providing comic relief while playing the role of John Candy, was Heath Bell of the Padres. Bell had one of those planes-trains-and-automobiles adventures just to get here, eventually pulling into town in a minivan rented in Indiana. Talk about your typecasting -- and not just by body type. Three of the past four losing pitchers in the All-Star Game have been Padres. Shower curtain rings, anyone?
The NL now has lost four consecutive All-Star Games by one run, and five of the last seven by one run. So cruel. The National Leaguers have not won any of the past 13 Midsummer Classics, spared only by an infamous stay of execution in 2002 by Judge Bud Selig, who ended that game in a tie.
They've lost games with nothing on the line, and they've lost games with the World Series home-field advantage on the line. (Forget Game 7. The real value, as Rays manager Joe Maddon pointed out, is starting the World Series at home. You don't know if a seventh game will be played, but you know Games 1 and 2 are for certain. And since the "This Time It Counts" promotion was put in place, AL teams are 9-3 in Games 1 and 2.)
"Obviously we're tired of being on the wrong end of it," said Brewers reliever Trevor Hoffman, who has been to seven All-Star Games and has yet to be on the winning team. "When we do win one it will be euphoria in the National League clubhouse."
The streak makes no sense, of course. It's the equivalent of flipping a coin 13 times and 12 times it comes up heads -- and one time it lands on its side. There is no logical reason for it.
Yes, we know the AL owns the NL in interleague play. Yes, the resources of the Yankees and Red Sox have provided a rising tide in the AL that has risen all boats in the league, never allowing AL teams the daydream of backdooring into a wild-card spot. But in the ultimate small sample of one game, the results should be more random. Actually, the overall series is close to a coin flip: 40-38-2 in the favor of the NL over the 80 games.
So this 13-year streak is simply ... freakish. And, in its own dark way, entertaining.
Actually, Lou Brock didn't think this streak was all in fun. The Cardinals Hall of Famer walked into the NL clubhouse before the game to pump up these loveable losers. Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols introduced him to a fanfare of "Lou! Lou!" Then Brock went all Rockne on the NL, telling them they should never settle for being "the best of the worst or the worst of the best," and imploring them to "rise up and meet the challenge" when the game reaches a point when it is there to be won. Brock is from an era when NL players annoyed their AL counterparts with their "superiority" complex, but that era is but a legend to today's players.
President Obama wasn't much help, either, for the NL upon his own clubhouse visit. "He's an AL guy himself!" Hoffman noticed. Yes, and props to the Commander in Chief for representing his team of choice, the White Sox, rather than pandering to the locals with a Cardinals warmup jacket. "I do think you appreciate the leader of the free world being bold about certain things," Hoffman said. "It was pretty cool to see he held to his own convictions."
Hawaiian Shane Victorino of the Phillies ("My homeboy," the president greeted him) gifted Obama with a pair of sneakers with the number 44 on them. The president shook every hand in the room and signed autographs. Well, at least the NL came away from this with something, right?
Of course, after the tie-breaking sacrifice fly by Jones, the AL had to toy just a little more with the NL. Eighteen straight NL hitters were retired at one point, most of them hacking at first pitches to keep the agony to a minimum, before Adrian Gonzalez walked with two outs in the eighth and carried the potential tying run to third on a single by Hudson. But in one epic at-bat, Joe Nathan of the Twins kept pouring in high fastballs at Ryan Howard until, at 2-and-2, he snapped off an angry slider. The pitch bounced in the dirt well out of the strike zone, but so fooled was Howard that he swung, at least in the legal definition of the term, to go down on strikes.
For the fourth time in this streak, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees took care of the endgame, and as usual, with the kind of nasty stuff that should be borderline illegal.
Hawpe, batting second in the inning, asked AL expatriate Miguel Tejada, who was hitting behind him, for advice on hitting Rivera's brutal cutter.
"If it looks like a strike," Tejada told him, "it's not going to be a strike."
Great. Strike one was a wicked cutter that nearly hit Hawpe in the shoetops. He swung anyway. He took such an ugly hack he looked like one of those tabletop hockey players connected to a rod, spinning gracelessly. Strike two was a buzzsaw of a cutter that broke his bat.
"Hey, I only broke one bat," Hawpe said. "That's not bad."
Strike three was a backdoor cutter, a pitch that began somewhere west of Flourissant and wound up downtown.
"Boom! Boom! Backdoor!" Hudson said. "Man, that's bull right there. That's just not fair! Throw a four-seamer down the middle, will you? That is un-fair!"
And so it goes for the NL. Yes, it is unfair. It is cruel. It makes no sense. But it is fun in a wicked way. The All-Star Game has a storyline more than a decade in the making. Even Gilligan's Island ran only for three years. We will tune in again next year, just to see how else it can go wrong for the NL.