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July 15, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Being There

by Derek Zumsteg

(Ed. note. Derek Zumsteg spent a few days last week taking in the All-Star Week festivities at Safeco Field. This is his report.)

"The Star Spangled Banner" is a march. It should be over in two minutes. Preferably it's sung loud, defiantly; it's not as good a piece of music as, say, "O Canada," but it's twice as proud. If you have ever heard it done properly, you will remember it forever.

Our national anthem is routinely butchered, to the point where people don't seem to notice, or care, that the R&B acts and vocal stylists who do it are showboating, putting 14 syllables in "yet," making the anthem a trite moment, instead of a proud one. Last night at the All-Star Game, Mya gave one of the worst renditions I've ever heard, so loud that the scheduled fly over of A-6 Intruders came just as she went into "braaaaaaaaaaaavveeeeee," which she held out until the jets receded and all you could hear was her, again, still clinging to her moment, and everyone cheered. Those planes don't miss their cues--it was Mya over her time limit. Way, way over her time limit.

I was going to write a series of articles on each day of the All-Star festivities but I've been too depressed, because it seemed that everything I enjoyed about the game was being made shallow and unremarkable, like "The Star Spangled Banner."

I love baseball, folks. It's the only sport I know, dominating my bookcases and my writing. The first two days of this week have made me feel like my love was run over a washboard, fraying its fabric and dulling its color. It was mended Tuesday night, but I'm left unsettled, as if I know my relationship with the game will have an end, and one not far off.

I got tickets courtesy of Michael Cox of strikethree.com, and Sunday I met up with fellow Baseball Prospectus staffer Jeff Bower and strikethree's David Cameron, who has a depth of recall on prospect data that frightens me. As we watched batting practice before the Futures Game, David not only knew who all the guys were ("Not a prospect. he's 25 and repeating Huntsville for the second time, even though his numbers look good.") but was also knew everything about their injuries ("Oh, Pena? He strained a hamstring last month, he'll be back in two weeks."). If you're running a major-league franchise and you need someone to do this sort of thing for money so you can make astute waiver claims and minor-league signings, drop him a line.

We were impressed by some normal things during BP: Nick Johnson has the fastest bat of anyone I've ever seen, J.R. House had some nice power shots, Nick Neugebauer is a big, big guy. At the same time we're watching, the Safeco Field public-address announcer is doing some interviews:

PA Guy: Ryan Ludwick, as you know, here at Safeco, we've got out own power-hitting second baseman in Bret Boone. You're a power-hitting second base--

Ryan Ludwick: Actually, I'm an outfielder.

PA Guy: Oh. I don't understand how I got that mixed up. Uh, well, you've been putting up some impressive numbers anyway.

Ludwick: Well, I'm in a hitters' park in a hitters' league, so that's not a big deal. I've just been trying to work on what the coaches tell me...

Oh, those A's prospects, understanding park effects. Here's another great exchange.

PA Guy: Jamal Strong, what's your biggest strength?

Jamal Strong: I'd have to say my speed.

Derek Zumsteg: And speed never slumps.

PA Guy: You know, speed never takes a day off.

David Cameron: Dude!

We mocked Wily Mo Pena as he stepped in, David predicting that he'd whiff at least once. Pena, true to form, turned himself around swinging and missing the first pitch. He proceeded to hit dribblers, weak line drives, and foul balls, the worst cage session I'd seen. Then Pena, warmed up, started to drill monster shots way up into the left-field bleachers, which are about three miles from home plate (Cal Ripken's home run in the All-Star Game was in nearly the same spot but about a hundred feet lower). He then alternated shocking power with laughable swings. I have no idea what to make of this.

After batting practice we all took off to go to Larry's Greenfront for lunch and, for those of us into that sort of thing, beer. We were stalling to try and avoid the Celebrity and Legends Softball game. We didn't stall long enough, and that's where things really started to go downhill.

Comedy doesn't play from the stands, and watching a bunch of screwball celebrities (overheard: "That guy's from that show." "'The Practice'?" "No, the guy next to him, from that other show.") whiff, botch plays, and generally be so painful to watch that they had to go to "one swing" rules, where each batter gets one hack and then sits down, which meant fewer people at bat, no offense...exactly what softball is about. Highlight: Alvin Davis hit a "home run" over the plastic-sheet wall 20 feet or so back from the infield dirt.

The problem with the event, besides being badly run and stupid, is that it sort of mocks the field. I know, we're all there to have fun, but even in the All-Star Game, the skills competitions, whatever, they're all made up of people working hard and being serious. You're seeing people try. Watching a bunch of rich, good-looking people goof off on the field your team plays on by virtue of their being more famous, better connected, because NASCAR rigged a race for them...only makes for resentment, not fun. I'm sure it played well after heavy editing on ESPN, but being there was torture.

The Futures Game was cool, because it was baseball, taken seriously, but I noticed that the stands kept getting emptier as time passed. I don't know if people didn't understand what they were in for or what, but it was weird that people showed up and then left after two innings.

Monday's workout day was fun, because I got to see Ichiro pull batting-practice balls into the right-field stands and see some other prospects play, but later the Home Run Derby was a dud.

The problem with the Home Run Derby is that it pretty much makes trivial one of the hardest and most impressive feats in baseball. It's easy to forget that there's a world of difference between hitting a pitch served up by a coach right where you want it and hitting one thrown by one of the thousand best people in the world at throwing balls that are hard to hit.

This was made even worse by Jason Giambi, who put on a clinic, drilling 14 home runs in the first round. After that everything else seemed stupid. Hit three in the top deck? Ah, Jason did that and more. We were pretty much reduced to hoping someone would get it out of the stadium or hit one of the prize signs so I could win a million dollars and take over the Devil Rays. There were other things wrong, though:

  • Chris Berman should give up doing anything involving baseball. He's not funny, he doesn't like baseball, and baseball doesn't need him. I gave up trying to hang funny nicknames on people in grade school. Berman is a grown man, and if the only thing keeping his interest in baseball is making up dumb names that only his ESPN colleagues will use, there are better things he can do with his time.

  • If you've been to Safeco Field, you know one of the worst things is the constant NBA-style interruptions. It's not quite as bad as Yankee games I've seen televised (day-oh) where (day-oh) not even an single pitch (day-oh) goes by (I'll stop now) without some music or cheer or PA exhortation, but it's close.

    One of the great joys of baseball for me is being able to think about what the pitcher might throw, or watching the defenders position themselves, how the next at-bat and inning might play out, what that might mean. Being constantly annoyed by music and flashing "MAKE NOISE" scoreboards, all of these things grate like the teenagers behind me who talked all the way through "Final Fantasy" today. Baseball doesn't need to be taken less seriously, jazzed up and made sparkly; it needs to be appreciated. Trying to make it into an experience it inherently is not is not only futile but counter-productive.

  • During the Home Run Derby, they went as far as to ask for a standing ovation. I know I'm already sounding like a curmudgeon, but I think cheers, applause, boos, these all should be unscripted and unprompted, and that the natural excitement that builds and wanes through the game takes care of itself. There's no need for a Rally Monkey, a ninth-inning inspirational video clip.

For me, then, the Home Run Derby was an astonishing opening by Giambi, followed by being bored and annoyed.

The All-Star Game, I loved. I came in at game time and saw the 20-minute opening number, which was cool, and the game was great. I had no idea how cool it would be to see an entire field of players I wanted to see, the guys I'd pick out when I attended games to pick up the subtleties of their game.

I was never a fan of Cal Ripken Jr. growing up. I don't think he saved baseball, and I've argued before that The Streak was at times ill-earned, that his performance suffered for it, hurting his team. But I've come to appreciate him in recent years, looking back at what he accomplished compared to his peers, and while I think he would have been better off waiting to announce his retirement, avoiding the embarrassment of the Ripken Retirement Tour, I've grown to like him. While I don't believe in clutch hitting, Tuesday night I admitted that Cal has a gift for the dramatic. Where did that home run come from? He doesn't hit those anymore. But he turned on that ball like anybody in the Futures Game would, and it was awesome.

Something else I noted is that press accounts are pretty much tuned to the story the press wants to write. You may have some suspicions about this already, especially if you've watched the Fox News Channel. When Alex Rodriguez came up people cheered wildly, as reported--and they booed, too. Sure, the cheering was louder, but it wasn't like everyone stood up and applauded.

I also subsequently read that fake money had been thrown down, but I was on the first row of the top deck, with an unobstructed view of the stadium, and I was scanning for it. I saw one piece of paper dropping from the top deck behind third base. That got written up in accounts of the game.

Not noted, however, was that Randy Johnson was the real applause-getter. He had a long, rocky relationship with the M's front office which resulted in being dumped to the Astros after struggling through a terrible first half in 1998. We cheered him in the bullpen warming up, cheered him coming out, cheered him on the mound. Johnson is an emotional and unique player, and we saw him go from flame-throwing wild thing to dominance in his time in Seattle, and it was a joy to watch. His issues were with the GM, not the fans: he never pouted, as Ken Griffey Jr. did, that other players had more signs up that day, or that people didn't cheer as loud for his wins. In his last year, I remember Johnson's interviews as being open, angry, but intelligent, too, and I bore him no ill will.

Seeing him pitch to Ichiro was one of the coolest things I've seen all year.

This is baseball: great players with histories coming together on the field to play for us to watch.

And that's where baseball should have left it. Stopping the game--even an exhibition game--to give Ripken and Tony Gwynn trophies and ask them softball questions was ill-timed and badly done. Bud Selig is a terrible speaker, but I doubt even William Jennings Bryan could have taken the podium and made anything of that occasion. I don't begrudge these two players their recognition, but there's a time and place for all things, and that wasn't the right time.

As much as I have to complain about, the thing I'll remember is watching Ripken turn on that fastball and thinking "wow" as I watched it clear the wall. I hope that it's the moment and not the surrounding ceremony that baseball realizes is important.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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