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July 14, 2010

All-Star Game

Observations from Anaheim

by Christina Kahrl

ANAHEIM—Last week, after having arrived in Southern California, I outlined my reservations about the All-Star Game, from whether or not it's a real game, to whether its rosters are comprised entirely of stars, let alone all of them. In short, I've been a bit dubious about the All-Star Game fulfilling all three of its core components, and when you hitch that baseball-flavored entertainment to the new expectation that the unwieldy proposition has to mean something—in this case, home-field advantage in the World Series—and you're left with a strange proposition.

It's a game that counts—at least as far as the teams presently still in the running are concerned—but it tends not to be managed that way. The rosters are selected with an even more chaotic selection process, where fans, players, the two managers, and then the fans again, and then the managers once again too, at least once you wind up with the annual passel of guys bugging out, pitchers made unavailable because they've been too busy as recently as Sunday helping their employer win ballgames... you can see where this gets us.

We wind up with teams forced to draft a number of tokens from the get-go (more of them in the NL), and once the process truly wraps up, you're down to fourth or fifth alternates. In his pre-game comments over lunch with the BBWAA, Bud Selig commented about “how you used to have to beg people, but now people are lobbying for it.” When you've opened up rosters to 34, and you're reaching beyond the top 50 players in both leagues because of the process, of course people are lobbying for it—becoming an All-Star is easier than ever before, travel is easier than ever before, and when you throw open the possibilities to a wider field than ever, of course people are interested.

Despite these and other discontents, I'd made my trip to see my first All-Star Game since watching Bo bomb Big Daddy, but even that was only on the boob tube more than two decades ago. I left happily entertained by a pretty decent facsimile of a ballgame, witnessing a landmark event in that the National League won for the first time since the term “irrational exuberance”—despite all appearances, not a reference to All-Star Game fancying—entered the lexicon.

That's not to say that both teams played great baseball. Predictably, the pitchers had things much their own way, chewing through lineups against hitters with little or no chance of seeing the opposing moundsman a second time. This fed into the increasingly overused meme about how this is some new “year of the pitcher,” and while scoring is down .15 runs per game per team, I'm the sort of observer who likes full seasons of data before we go announcing the re-dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the real “Year of the Pitcher.”

As both teams briskly went about their business, a few problems with taking the game overly seriously came to the fore. First, you could be left wondering about whether or not the players were playing a regular-season speed. On Miguel Cabrera's single to right field in the bottom of the first, it wasn't like Corey Hart made any pretense of digging to get the ball and potentially keep the Captain at second base. Elvis Andrus got thrown out over-running second base on a stolen-base attempt in the bottom of the sixth, as he popped up from his slide on the other side of the bag, only to be nonchalantly tagged out (sort of) by Brandon Phillips in a strikeout/thrown-out double play to squelch an AL scoring bid.

On the other hand, Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez seemed intent on buzzing people from the outset, hardly the action of a man indifferent to the outcome. In the bottom of the fourth, Ryan Braun made a desperate diving catch in left to keep Josh Hamilton from getting an easy one-out gork, and Hanley Ramirez made a nice throw to get a 6-5 out at third base on a Carl Crawford grounder that showed a heady recognition of the relative difference of going after Joe Mauer nearby versus Crawford motoring up the line with a full head of steam. Marlon Byrd made an unconsummated dive on a first-batter gork from Derek Jeter leading off the bottom of the sixth. Reservations about Brewers outfield play that contributes to their club's status as one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, there was enough full-speed play to make this look like the real thing.

Second, there was the fact that the thoughtful inclusion of “star” non-closers nearly cost both teams the ballgame, and ultimately proved fatal to the American League. While I'm glad to see some sort of mechanism of honoring middle-relief stalwarts, Hong-Chih Kuo and Matt Thornton ended up being the game's co-goats as a function of their inclusion among the top dozen pitchers or so in their respective leagues. Kuo came in for the bottom of the fifth, but spoiled faster than a Kardashian, issuing a walk to Evan Longoria followed by a grounder to the box that Kuo air-mailed well down the right-field line, putting runners on second and third and setting up the game's first run on a Robinson Cano sac fly.

In contrast, Thornton was challenged to clean up somebody else's mess in the seventh, and failed. After Phil Hughes gave up a pair of one-out singles, AL skipper Joe Girardi sensibly reached for Thornton, seeking to erase Andre Ethier via a 300-point drop in OPS from the Dodgers' lefty-swinging star. He did, literally, when NL skipper Charlie Manuel pinch-hit the Snakes' Chris Young, an outcome that suggested an incipient popup, which was delivered. But Thornton loaded the bases after he couldn't get Marlon Byrd to chase (or pop up) high strikes, which would cost him—after popping a foul ball down the right-field line, Brian McCann pulled a second pitch over the middle down that same line to plate all three baserunners, a potentially decisive lead.

Two innings later, the National League would still be holding that lead, as it was entrusted to the man Jay Jaffe refers to as the hillbilly Armando Benitez: Jonathan Broxton. Broxton tried to live down to that label by giving up a leadoff single to David Ortiz, but this brought us to another problem: Joe Girardi had scrupulously played almost everybody by the ninth inning, leaving with next to nobody to pinch-run with.

Consider Girardi's bench after the NL took the lead in the top of the seventh: Justin Morneau is shaking off a concussion, so he wasn't really available. Nick Swisher, whom he immediately used to pinch-hit for Ty Wigginton—though the token O hadn't even batted since coming in for Longoria at third—and Adrian Beltre, who moved into the game in Wiggy's slot. Effectively burning through three players in one slot for one plate appearance left the AL a single available player on the bench: Alex Rodriguez. Girardi elected to not use him to pinch-run for Papi. That's not so terrible, but what had been was his emptying the bench already to the point that he had no other alternatives.

So Broxton got to bat with the fat man on first and basically parked there. He kept things interesting, striking out Adrian Beltre. Girardi didn't have any choice but to let All-Star John Buck bat (unless All-Star John Buck feigned an injury), but Broxton provided entertainment here as well, running up three balls on Buck, then powering in a pair of strikes, before giving up a dying quail to right field that generated extra tension because... sure enough, Papi can't run so good, and even with 34 people on the roster, he'd been left out there to waddle around the bases. So, a long fly ball that landed out of Byrd's reach in right becomes a long forceout, and All-Star John Buck has to settle for a fielder's derisive choice, leaving Ian Kinsler to end the game a pitch later on a languid fly to center, closing the evening's action inside of three hours.

As a result, the game left us with all of the disappointments you can attach to an All-Star Game. We didn't get to see all stars, and Joe Girardi's thoughtful willingness to let all the kids play left him incapable of being able to pull any late-game levers to win a ballgame, not after something bad happened. In his own defense, after the game Girardi noted he'd considered employing the re-entry rule to announce Beltre as injured, pinch-running A-Rod and then using Wigginton for the at-bat. Think about that proffered pretzel logic, though: down by two with the leadoff man at first base, you have Wigginton hit, instead of A-Rod? There's the problem with the All-Star Game in a nutshell: funky roster rules and funky rosters engender all sorts of non-functional decisions.

Beyond all of that, the game wasn't without its programmatic discontents, for some. During the preliminaries, the Canadian tenors endured technical difficulties getting “O Canada” out cleanly, but the National Anthem went off without a hitch. Maybe I'm hokey, or maybe I'm too invested in some community organizing of my own not to admire success stories, but the All-Stars Among Us concept was really very well executed, symbolically—by putting them front and center between the lines, and the two teams—and in terms of the attendant bells and whistles and ceremonies. Fox bogged down the proceedings with a few too many musical numbers, but since the teams played relatively brisk baseball, the necessary crass commercialism provided America with a few well-timed bathroom breaks.

There were little moments in-game worth remembering as well. Hearing Bob Sheppard's recorded introduction of Derek Jeter stepping in was an unobtrusive tribute, while later on, Heath Bell chugged in from the left-field bullpen like he was the latter-day incarnation of past Pads relief stalwart Craig Lefferts.

Put all of that on a bun, and what have you got? Bud Selig will tell you it's an All-Star Game worthy of the industry's ever-expanding success, glorious and meaningful. I'm left feeling both entertained and confirmed in my biases, however. Entertained, because it may have been baseball-flavored entertainment as opposed to baseball, but that's still the best flavor, right? And confirmed in my reservations about the All-Star Game as something that should count for anything when it doesn't fulfill any of the elements it's named for.

A nice enough way to pass the time? Sure, but here's looking forward to a second half fully stocked with the real thing.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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