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July 12, 2006

We Are All Made of All-Stars

Report from Pittsburgh

by Will Carroll

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PITTSBURGH - There's Derek Jeter. David Ortiz is hiding behind his rock star sunglasses. No one knows who Gary Matthews Jr. is until they belatedly put up a sign with his name behind the table. Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, Ryan Howard--they're all here. The biggest crowd surrounds Ichiro Suzuki, as it normally does, but Jason Bay wasn't far behind.

All-Star week is full of superstars and the lesser-known players, all staring back at a throng of media, autograph seekers, and never ending barrages of questions, requests, and languages. Well before the Home Run Derby, Johan Santana switched effortlessly from Spanish to English, fielding questions from a Venezuelan TV reporter who was muy caliente and then switching over to, well, Brad Wochomurka.

All the while, the players are asked to perform at the same high level they do on the field in a forum they're often much less comfortable with. It is a juggling act that some handle with a preternatural ease (Derek Jeter, Michael Young), some are still learning (Scott Kazmir, Jonathan Papelbon) and that some just don't care about (Bronson Arroyo).

Pittsburgh's new convention center and sparkling downtown seemed to be overflowing with fans, the town colored black and gold; it seemed that every mom, dad, and 2.2 kids had a bright new All-Star game jersey. Through the Fan Fest and Sponsor Zone, it was made abundantly clear that the All-Star festivities aren't for the players or even for TV; this event is for the fans.

Brad and I walked into the stadium early on Monday. It was his first time to PNC Park, the stadium I think is the best in baseball. After meeting Chuck Wilson of XM for the first time after three years of interviews, emails, and phone calls, we made our way around the park. Our long wait for a Primanti Brothers sandwich was finally over and did not disappoint.

The ballpark is simply magnificent, a showcase of blue steel and limestone with every great feature of modern ballparks with none of the problems. The view of downtown Pittsburgh may be the most dramatic, with the architecture of the PPG, Highmark, and US Steel buildings showcased. There's plenty of food, showcasing local highlights. Tonight, those were augmented by "All-Star food," the wares of several of baseball's top executive chefs. Every stand has a great view of the field and lines--even in a packed stadium--were never more than five deep.

A full tour of the field later, we stood on the concourse looking out at the Allegheny River when we ran into ESPN's Jim Caple. After a couple of pleasantries, we were rudely interrupted by a pair of F-14s flying by our heads at an altitude of about six inches. The planes--with their wings back and afterburners on--seemed to come out of the stadium and had to pull up to avoid going through the Ft. Pitt tunnel. For a moment, I thought Brad was going to go over the rail while I just had a brief flashback to the USS Independence.

We found our seats--OK, not our seats, but the best ones we could find--in the auxiliary press section. We ended up next to the Fox Sports TV crew, including Ken Rosenthal. The seats were at the farthest point of the first base line upper deck, even with the Montecristo Club and giving us a view of both the full field and the river behind the tall right field Clemente bleachers.

We watched batting practice for both teams through the chain link in the 21-foot Clemente Wall in right field. Ozzie Guillen's sons shagged balls while Magglio Ordonez's kid followed his dad like a shadow. With all the father-son combos in the game, including Gary Matthews Sr. and Jr., you wonder if one of the many kids brought to the event might someday be playing in it. The balls began flying out of the park, none hit harder than a shot from Ichiro that left the crowd gasping. It seemed to still be rising as it passed the bleachers and splashed down in the river. Ichiro has won some derbies in his past and I hope that he'll one day decide to participate in the big one.

The Derby quickly became a coming out party for Wright and Howard. Sure, baseball fans know them, but let's remember that in our internet-soaked, obsessive-fanboy world, there's still a good number of people who are casual about baseball, only noticing things like All-Star games, records, and the World Series. The generational change signaled by 23 first-time All-Stars and the Wright v. Howard final bodes well for the game.

ESPN's high frame rate slow motion was an amazing feature, showing just how still the lower half stays for these elite hitters. The torque they can generate is astounding; that they do it without tearing up their backs and shoulders is more astounding. I can see why Albert Pujols and Jim Thome took a pass on the competition.

Three hours later, we walked out of the park with the rest of the fans, feeling much the same as most of them did. We'd seen one heck of a show, a showcase for fans that didn't count. It was a joyous exhibition, a celebration of the hardest skill in all of sports. Tim Kurkjian of ESPN pointed out that you could go to any playground in America and find a couple guys who can dunk, but it takes hundreds of scouts scouring the countryside to just find one David Wright, Ryan Howard, or Miguel Cabrera.

Things I noticed at the Game:

  • Scott Kazmir doesn't look old enough to ask me if I want fries, let alone old enough to strike out the best hitters in the AL.

  • Joe Mauer is a legit 6'5". I'd hoped that his listed height was an NBA height. Research shows that taller catchers have more knee problems. If he keeps hitting like he is, he can play anywhere and be valuable.

  • No one seems concerned about the CBA. One writer I spoke to expected there to be an announcement before the end of the season.

  • Who has the more awkward throwing motion: B.J. Ryan or David Eckstein?

  • Is Trevor Hoffman underrated? I ask this question before Troy Glaus and Michael Young make this question less relevant.

  • I might be the only person who cares about this, but the All-Star teams have their own trainers. It's customary for the home team's trainer to handle one team, while the manager of the "visitor" tends to bring his own guys. I couldn't find any mention of who was selected to assist, though I did notice Stan Johnston of the Dodgers in the dugout.

  • There's a fine line between camaraderie and tampering. Sure, I asked Michael Young if he'd someday like to play with his pal Vernon Wells again. Much was made of Scott Kazmir flying to Pittsburgh on the Yankees private jet, which was more about Alex Rodriguez trying to find a new client for his fractional jet company than recruiting.

  • I'm no scout, but there's an intensity and confidence that is palpable in many of the players. If you didn't know what they did, you'd still know they did something special. You can call it charisma or presence, but it takes about ten seconds with most of these players to sense who has it and who doesn't. Dan Uggla has it, surprisingly, while Grady Sizemore seems a bit overwhelmed. Michael Young has the same intense stare you're likely to get from Buck Showalter, while Alex Rodriguez seems to have someone following him around with a spotlight. Ichiro--well, you can't get close enough to tell because he's constantly surrounded by Japanese media.

  • Baseball is still fun. The NFL fines players for celebrations, for uniform violations, and speaking out to the media. Baseball may have its problems in these areas, but I'll take Barry Bonds and his stand-and-stare home run trot over the alternative. I love seeing the childlike enthusiasm of Miguel Tejada in the dugout and the players all videotaping their own highlight reels for the future.

We left early, the drive home to Indianapolis factoring in heavily, but we carried new memories with us, as well as a new appreciation for why baseball remains the American pastime. For all the game's failings and foibles, it remains the fan's game. It lives in the bright eyes of the boy in the bleachers, watching a David Ortiz home run sail over his head. It lives in the wonder that a child of any age can feel watching David Wright excel in every phase of the game.

Forget all the calls for changes. Ignore the red herring that is postseason home field advantage. Look past the length of the Derby and just revel in the pure power of athletes who have nary a steroid rumor about them. Just ask the fans. Baseball's just fine and the All-Star Game doesn't need fixing.

We'll have plenty of interviews with players from the All-Star Game on this week's BP Radio.

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