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July 16, 2008

Prospectus Today

An Extended All-Star Engagement

by Joe Sheehan

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My love of baseball was passed down to me through my family, and more specifically my mother, who has been a sports fan and participant her whole life. Mom and I would go to a bunch of Yankee games each season, and while her tolerance for long games, poor seats, and big crowds was never high, two of those weren’t a problem in the Bronx in the 1980s.

The first one, though…wow. I was a magnet for extra innings in my youth, so much so that it became a running joke between us. I’ve written about the 18-inning Mets/Padres game my father took me to in 1980, when the ill-stocked concession stands ran out of everything by the 14th. That was the zenith of my powers, but I attended any number of extra-inning contests at the Stadium in the 1980s.

So it was appropriate that the first All-Star Game I ever saw in person went 15 innings, and I mean the hard way. It took two-out hits, throwing errors, baserunner kills, arguably a blown call or three, and just about everything but Tim Donaghy to push last night’s Midsummer Classic past 1:30 in the morning. A night that began with a focus on Yankee Stadium, on the game’s rich history and storied traditions, ended with the baseball—at times unworthy of the setting—taking center stage.

As expected, the hour before the game tugged at the heartstrings. There was a video presentation just before 8 p.m. that included great moments and great players from the 85-year history of Yankee Stadium. Many of the clips were standards—Don Larsen jumping into Yogi Berra’s arms after his World Series perfect game, Chris Chambliss fighting the crowds to get to home plate in 1976, Derek Jeter going into the third-base stands against the Red Sox after catching a pop-up—but strung together, they highlighted the underlying reason for all of the hype this year: Yankee Stadium, in both configurations, has been the setting for as many great sports moments as any place on earth.

You can cheer a ballpark, but cheering a player is better. The pregame introduction of Mariano Rivera triggered as loud an ovation as I’ve ever heard, and chants of "Mariano" filled the ballpark. Derek Jeter is the face of the post-1994 Yankees, but it’s Rivera who, in the twilight of his career, has come to be almost as beloved for his consistency and his class. That he would have the spotlight on him last night, that he would have his moment, is something that will always be remembered. As much as I appreciate Sports Illustrated’s decision to have me as part of their team covering the event at the park, my press credential at that moment was as confining as a straitjacket. I wanted to applaud, and I regret not doing so. Mo, I praised in my heart.

That wasn’t the only "take off the badge" moment. The pregame ceremony featuring more than 40 Hall of Famers taking the field paired with the current All-Star starters inspired more goosebumps than a whole season of Oprah. The New York crowd raised its voices not only for those it claims as its own—Rich Gossage and Dave Winfield and Reggie Jackson—but for legends such as Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. The loudest cheers came for Yankee legends Whitey Ford, announced last among the pitchers, and Yogi Berra, the final Hall member to hear his name called and the most beloved living Yankee, for his legendary malaprops as much as for his MVP awards.

In the auxiliary press box, people watched largely in silence, some standing, most sitting. I understand the history of "no cheering in the press box," but we all looked like idiots in that moment. Fifty thousand people were on their feet enjoying and appreciating the game’s greatest players, and we were forced, by hoary tradition, to act nonplussed. I glanced to my left and saw section after section standing and clapping, and then starting at Section 33, a long line of people sitting quietly. It was embarrassing. You can maintain a sense of objectivity in your coverage of the game while also showing respect and appreciation for what’s in front of you. Common sense, rather than a code dating to a time before time, has to take precedence. A love for the game should be encouraged in that place, perhaps above all others.

Now, what was supposed to happen was that the AL was going to win, and Mariano Rivera was going to close out that win by pitching the top of the ninth, being on the mound for the 27th out of a victory the way he had so many times before in that park. I watched much of the game with SI’s Ben Reiter, who made a great point: you can’t script history. It either happens or it doesn’t. On this night, there was history, but not the kind on the page. The AL, the better league with the gaudy interleague play record and the long All-Star winning streak, was shut out for six innings by Ben Sheets, Carlos Zambrano, and Dan Haren. The NL picked up two runs on a solo homer by Matt Holliday and a sac fly by Lance Berkman, and it looked as if Rivera might have to pitch down a few runs.

J.D. Drew kicked off a series of momentum swings with a two-out, two-run homer in the seventh off of Edinson Volquez, who was arguably one of the weak links of a staff that dropped off a bit after the top guys. While his ERA is gaudy, Volquez had failed in the AL and has been prone to wildness, a dangerous trait against All-Star hitters. Drew’s homer put the Yankee Stadium crowd in the awkward, possibly unprecedented, position of cheering raucously as a Red Sock rounded the bases. They nonetheless cheered, less out of loyalty to league than to team—Drew’s shot made it more likely that Rivera could get the save.

Francona used Jonathan Papelbon to pitch the eighth, which may have been something of a mistake, not because Papelbon isn’t skilled, but because the reliever had spent two days chewing on his toes. Perhaps inserting him into a situation that would turn out to be at best unpleasant, and at worst disastrous, was a poor call. It’s not as if the AL was lacking in options—Francisco Rodriguez and Joakim Soria come immediately to mind—to pitch the frame. Papelbon allowed a slap single to left and a stolen base—when the current version of Miguel Tejada runs on you, that’s a sign they think you hold runners as well as you dance. A throwing error by Dioner Navarro put Tejada on third, and a sacrifice fly by Adrian Gonzalez brought the wrath of the Bronx down on Paps. It’s fair to say that he’s going to be treated very poorly nine times a year for some time to come.

In the bottom of the inning, Clint Hurdle got tactical and got burnt for his troubles, bringing in Billy Wagner to pitch to Grady Sizemore with two outs. Sizemore singled to right, and scored on an Evan Longoria ground-rule double—yay, democracy!—into the left-field seats. How? Between the two, Sizemore stole second without a throw, a lapse by Russell Martin that proved critical.

With the game tied, Francona made the surprising decision to leave Rivera in the bullpen and go to Rodriguez. With discussions of Cito Gaston and the 1993 All-Star Game crackling through the park, it took a second to realize that what Francona was doing was giving Rivera two bites at the apple. By using Rodriguez for what turned out to be one out, he saved Rivera some pitches, and by doing so left open the possibility that he could pitch the 10th, which is exactly what happened. It was a nice move by Francona, and if he may have regretted doing so two hours later, when he could have used a few extra outs from Rodriguez, it’s hard to blame him for trying to please the crowd on this night.

Of course, Rivera didn’t get the win, despite working out of a jam in the ninth and into and out of one in the 10th. The cheers as he walked off the mound in the ninth seemed to warrant a curtain call, but he demurred, and there was definitely a drop-off after the top of the 10th. Still, seeing him pitch in critical situations under these circumstances was a big part of the evening. Perhaps history will not be scripted, but it will allow for some well-crafted improvisation.

The game became more than a little crazy at that point. As we were calculating available innings in the press box, and I was providing the distance, estimated cab fare, and ETA of Tim Lincecum—who had been taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital earlier in the day suffering from dehydration—Dan Uggla followed up his inning-ending double play in the top of the 10th with back-to-back errors in the bottom of the frame. The context was different, but you remembered Chris Webber, and Ernest Byner, and Darius Washington, and you cringed for the player whose father had famously rooted for his son to make this team, to play in this game in this park. Handed these opportunities, the AL refused to score, but that was also because Aaron Cook came up big, getting the ground balls to keep the game going. En route to becoming the first pitcher to go three innings in an All-Star Game since 1994, Cook would strand seven runners in the process, benefiting from a caught stealing and a baserunner kill.

With each passing inning, the specter of 2002's tie loomed larger. The expansion to 12-man pitching staffs, a decision I hated in the moment and hate today, was designed to avoid a situation like last night’s, when the All-Star Game might reach a point at which neither team had a pitcher available. It was the wrong solution to the wrong problem; the number of pitchers on the roster was fine, it was just that the pitchers weren’t being used properly. The trend towards a max of two innings and a median of one accelerated over the last 15 years, culminating in '02, when the teams used 19 pitchers to throw 22 innings, leaving the game declared a tie at that point when neither had a pitcher it was willing to use for the 12th.

Last night had one element not present in '02 that may have saved the managers’ bacon: the designated hitter. Because the game was being played in an AL park, AL rules were in place. I have argued in the past that the DH should be a permanent part of the All-Star Game, since pitchers almost never hit anyway, tactics such as double-switches are nuisances that complicate watching the game, and a DH allowed one more star into the lineup. Had it been necessary to remove pitchers for pinch-hitters last night, the whole thing might well have fallen apart long before the 15th.

As it turned out, all the speculation as to what might happen was for naught. Selig is saying today that the game would have been played to a conclusion, which is easy to say when Corey Hart lets you off the hook with a brutal throw on a runner he should have gunned down easily. Had the game moved to the 16th or 17th, the shots of Rays GM Andrew Friedman would have been more frequent, as Scott Kazmir’s pitch count rose. Would a position player have taken the mound, to clips of Jose Canseco’s career-altering appearance in a Red Sox game in 1993? Would a hurler have re-entered the game? Would Lincecum have arrived? We’ll never know, but I sincerely hope that the response to the near-miss is appropriate and addresses the root causes of the problem, rather than papering over it. Fifteen years of experience with Selig should tell me otherwise.

Playing all All-Star Games with a DH and asking a little more from the pitchers, particularly the starters, will ensure that no team runs out of hurlers in all but the most degenerate case. Joe Saunders threw 12 pitches in his inning; Roy Halladay threw nine. That’s one reason why Joakim Soria had to throw 30 and George Sherrill 25, and if you think that makes sense, Jeff Foxworthy has a gig for you. The All-Star Game doesn’t have to be managed like gym class; not everyone has to play. One big reason for the decline in interest in the game is that it’s not managed as a competitive endeavor. It’s hard to take it seriously when every starter is gone by the sixth inning, when a tie game in the ninth is being decided not by the best players in the game, but by the guys who made the team thanks to 200 great at-bats or by having crappy teammates. This is a very recent phenomenon, and everything that’s wrong with the Game stems from this one trend. If the stars—the best players—played a larger percentage of the game, you’d avoid the risk of running out of pitchers and you’d have much more interesting matchups with the game on the line than George Sherrill versus Cristian Guzman. If you’re going to start the game at 8:45 p.m. ET and insert commercial breaks of up to eight minutes, you have to give people more incentive than that to stick around for the finish.

When the managers stand up to the players and say, "Congratulations on being an All-Star, but note that you might not play," the game will become more watchable and less problematic, and you won’t need a half-dozen gimmicks. They’ll also spare themselves the agonizing decisions when a game runs very long—a rare event, to be sure—by having more than enough pitchers for any contingency. The players, the starters, have to buy into this as well, being willing to stay in the game longer. It’s impossible to take "This Time it Counts" seriously when the name-brand players are all doing interviews before the late local news comes on.

For those of us who weren’t sweating out the last five innings, however, the game was a blast. It was as much fun as I can remember having at a ballpark, because not only was it a historic night, but the game itself featured both the silliness and absurdity of 15 innings, and any number of big plays in the field and on the bases. It wasn’t a boring game, but one loaded with action; I’ll remember Ichiro Suzuki’s peg from right field, and Russell Martin’s pick at the plate, and Ryan Ludwick’s 15th-inning diving catch, as long as I’ll remember anything else about the night.

At 1:37 a.m., as the AL All-Stars rushed out of the dugout to mob Michael Young and Justin Morneau, and the vocal stylings of Frank Sinatra filled the yard, and the remaining 20,000 or so fans headed for the exits, my phone rang. It seems mom handles long games a lot better than she used to.

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

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