By Ben Reiter
July 15, 2009

Over the past two days, if you believed the hype, Albert Pujols was supposed to accomplish a number of things: He was supposed to destroy his seven competitors in the Home Run Derby. He was supposed to win a new car and a 65-inch flat-screen TV for a fan from Philadelphia by hitting a homer where the fan predicted that he would. He was supposed to coax President Barack Obama into hurling a strike over the heart of the plate with the All-Star Game's ceremonial first pitch. He was supposed to ensure the National League's string of 12 consecutive All-Star games without a victory would be broken, single-handedly if necessary. If, along the way, he Heimliched a bunch of choking kids in the stands and thwarted a terrorist plot or two, well, it kind of seemed as if he was supposed to do that, too.

The All-Star Game, you see, was being held in St. Louis, and St. Louis happens to be Albert's home city, and Albert is Albert. But things didn't go the way they were scripted, as is usually the case in baseball, and as is usually the case with the so-called Midsummer Classic. A flat performance in the Derby led to a fourth-place finish for Pujols, after which the crowd at Busch Stadium made about as much noise as might an assemblage at a junior varsity volleyball game. The fan from Philadelphia will be forced to make do with his old car and his tiny curved-screen television, as Pujols didn't even reach the warning track on either of the shots the fan called. Obama unleashed a 58-foot soft toss that would probably have hit home plate had Pujols not reached out to make an underhand catch. And the highlights of Pujols' All-Star Game were a pair of nice defensive plays at first base; otherwise, he went 0-for-3 and made an error in the top of the first that allowed the game's first run to score -- a run that would prove to be crucial, as the American League won 4-3 to extend its non-losing streak to 13.

It all seemed to be crushingly disappointing to the 46,760 red-swathed fans in attendance here Tuesday night, who are usually touted as the "best fans in baseball" but didn't seem very excited about anything that didn't involve Pujols (or fellow Cardinals Yadier Molina and Ryan Franklin), or, when he appeared in a pre-game video, George W. Bush. Even the highlight-reel seventh inning grab by Carl Crawford that ended up winning Crawford the game's MVP award elicited little fan reaction, positive or negative.

By that point, the script had already been torn up, in the same way it was last year, when Mariano Rivera was called upon in a tie game in the 10th inning with the hope that he'd close out the final All-Star Game to be played at Yankee Stadium, only to have that game last until the 15th and to have the win go to Scott Kazmir. And in the same way in which the script was torn up in 2004, when Roger Clemens was supposed to dominate in his All-Star Game start at home in Houston, only to be torched for six runs in his single inning. The shame of all the obsessive focus on Pujols, and on what was supposed to happen, is that it detracted from what did happen tonight in St. Louis. What happened was that we witnessed a tense, tightly played game between (most) of the game's best talents -- one that featured generally excellent pitching, and, at 2 hours and 31 minutes, was far crisper than some of the slop-fests of years past. In many ways, this was the very model of how an All-Star Game should go; but it didn't at all feel like that in Busch Stadium, because of what Pujols didn't do.

Pujols took it all in stride. "Obviously I wanted to do something to help our National League to win," he said after it was all over, "But it's part of the game." In other words, we -- fans, the media, Major League Baseball -- can't script baseball games, even those of the All-Star variety. They've got to actually be played. And even if that fact leads to disappointment sometimes, it's what makes the sport worth following.

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