14 July 2004

Observations and Thoughts on the 2004 All-Star Game

Once a year, the best baseball players in the world get together and stage an exhibition to demonstrate the talent and skill and determination that makes them the best in the world. In no other sport is the All-Star game as real, as true-to-form as it is in baseball.

*In professional hockey, the goalies may be the best in the league, but they're not accustomed to facing five of the best players in the league simultaneously, and no one bothers to play defense much. This means that you regularly get NHL All-Star scores like 14-9, or 11-8, whereas regular season hockey game scores rarely venture into positive numbers.

*In professional basketball, the players are all too busy working on their rap record deals and trying not to get cappes by Allen Iverson's posse to bother playing defense, so we regularly see at least 250 points scored in the NBA All-Star Game, and that's just by the high-school kids!

*In professional football, the players don't even wear pads, and they're not even allowed to play defense, so that scoreboard usually gets a workout as well. Last year's Pro-Bowl saw a combined 107 points scored, a Pro-Bowl record.

Of course, this almost pales in comparison to my own Pro-Bowl accomplishments in 1993 Tecmo Super Bowl. That Super Nintendo game was set up to allow the user to choose the rosters for the pro bowl, as well as the starters and the play book. So I set up the AFC roster to consist entirely of injured and/or really poor players, and their playbook to consist of easily detectable running plays and very complicated passing plays (double backs, handoffs, etc.) This allows me to regularly run up the score on the AFC with my fully stocked NFC roster, and scores like 110-0, or 126-3 are not uncommon. It's a nice way to relax. In fact, it's a bad game if I score fewer than 100 points, allow any points to the AFC, if the AFC actually completes a pass or has more than negative 50 yards in total offense. Hey, I don't like losing.

But I digress.

Baseball is different. Baseball requires players to still throw the ball with the same force or spin or lack of spin they miht otherwise use in a real game. There just isn't much of any way to "pretend" to throw 95 mph, or to swing half-assed in order not to hurt yourself. You've still got to slide to avoid the tag, and you've still got to jump to catch that ball at the top of the wall, so baseball's greatest exhibition game has always carried with it a little more authority and intrigue than those of the other major American sports.

With that said, we lost a little something two years ago when the game ended in a tie, due to the AL and NL managers treating the game like an exhibition rather than a serious contest for bragging rights. For 2003, they came up with the "This Time It Counts" slogan, and senseless though it may be, made home-field advantage for the World Series contingent upon winning the All-Star game. Lots of good it did the Yankees last year. The All-Star game needed something to make it more intriguing, since we've lost the league-loyalty that used to be the hallmark of this competition. No fewer than nine of the 60 players on the two All-Star rosters were in the opposite league last season, and Carlos Beltran was in the other one this year! Twenty two of them, over one third, had played for the opposite league at some point in their careers, so you just can't see the game as the "Us against Them" kind of cnflict they'd like you to perceive.

So like I said, they came up with "This Time it Counts" for 2003, and last night, the sidelines said "This One Counts". It strikes me that at this rate, pretty soon they're going to start running out of phrases that include "count" in them to bill the game. I understand from sources close to actually existing, that some of the options they're exploring for next year are:

"This Time It Counts...Unless You're Eric Gagne!"

"Don't Count Your All-Star Game Victories Before They're Hatched!"  Posted by Hello

"Vun! Vun beaut-i-vul All-Star Game!! Ahh-Ah-Ah-AHHH!!"

They're also considering the possibility of simply re-using previous years' slogans with "...Bitch!" added to the end, but my sources are a little sketchy on that.

Otherwise, to my eyes, two years and a new system to add meaning to the game later, the managers don't seem to be managing much differently. The 2002 game saw all 30 players form both teams get into the game at some point. Last year's game saw 26 players from each team getting into the game, and last night, 28 players from each team made it into the record books. So aside from perhaps saving one pitcher or position player for an emergency (read: embarassing situation), it still looks a hell of a lot like an exhibition to me.

It was, however, one hell of an exhibition. The Greatest All-Star Outfield in History, Bonds-Griffey-Sosa, didn't even play together, as Griffey was (surprise!) injured. Bonds, Sosa, and Griffey-replacement Lance Berkman went a combined 1-for-6 with a walk and an RBI, leaving four men on base. Real exciting.

Well, for the American League, it was pretty exciting. Joe Torre may have managed it like an exhibition, but he also managed it to win, and he did, aided significantly by homers from Manny Ramirez, All-Star MVP Alfonso Soriano, and David Ortiz, whose 6th-inning shot landed in the JuiceBox upper deck. The AL also hit two triples, both by Rodriguezes (Ivan and Alex) who used to play for Texas, in which Houston lies. Talk about conspiracies!

Yes, let's talk about conspiracies, or rather the lack thereof.

So Roger Clemens started the game for the NL, with his supposed nemesis Mike Piazza as his batterymate. Clemens promptly gave up two homers and six runs in the first inning, something he's never done before in his "Hall of Fame twenty-one career" as Bud Selig so eloquently put it in the fourth inning ceremony in which Clemens was awarded the Commissioner's Award for Broadcast Excellence or for getting 1600 on the SATs or whatever the heck it was.

Theories I've heard about why this might have happened:

1) Piazza was tipping Clemens' pitches to get back at Roger for throwing baseball equipment at him four years ago.

I'd like to think that nobody could hold a grudge that long, but I've seen enough mafia movies to know it's not true. Any semblance of intelligence on Piazza's part will dictate to him that "home field advantage" won't mean a whole lot to him as he watches the World Series from his couch, so what does he care which league gets it? However, there were enough cameras, microphones and other recording equipment on that field last night that you could have heard Mike Piazza fart as he squatted behind the plate, if he had done so. It certainly would have been easily detectable if he'd been telling the batters what pitch was coming. So the Crash Davis Theory crashes and burns.

b) Clemens was tipping his own pitches, trying to let the AL win, thinking that he might be traded to an AL team going to the postseason before the season's over.

This is pretty ridiculous. If we know anything about Clemens after his "21-career", it's that the dude hates to lose. Hates it. Besides this, he doesn't expect to be traded, and the Astros don't really need to trade him, since he's only making about five million this year, and a lot of that is deferred. He doesn't have much control over the team to which he would be traded, and besides, I'm not sure Clemens is smart enough to come up with something like that. If he had, this would be the only possible Conspiracy Theory that might hold water: the Conspiracy of One.

iii) "That freakin' jerk Clemens got what he deserved! Fate caught up with him and he paid the piper for what he did to Mike Piazza, who is at least a Class Act, and probably a saint!!"

Admittedly, this theory came predominantly from Mets fans on WFAN radio out of New York, and therefore has about as much credibility and deserves as much discussion as, say, the Mets.

IV) Clemens was out partying til 2:30AM the night before the game and somehow couldn't get his fastball over 91 mph, so he had to rely on his breaking stuff, and he got rocked.

At least this theory doesn't have some dastardly scheme behind it. Just a guy who was out too late partying and couldn't perform at work the next day. Of course, the time at which he needed to perform was nearly 20 hours later, so you can safely presume, I think, that Clemens found time for rest at some point before he went on for the first pitch at, what, 8:30PM?

Certainly this theory seems more plausible than any of the others floated thus far, but the reality is that we still don't know everything there is to know about baseball. Sure, we know some things, especially when it comes to looking at the entire season: We know the Yankees will make the postseason, and that they'll pick up a notable player or two in July to help them do it. We know the Red Sox will choke, though we don't always know when. We know Ken Griffey will get hurt. We know Barry Bonds will walk. A lot. We know Alex Sanchez won't.

But we certainly don't know what's going to happen in any single game. There's still drama and suspense. That's why we watch it, right, because we don't know what's going to happen? If we did, they could just computer simulate the entire season, and we could all save a lot of money on baseball tickets. And I'd lost all my advertisers, which would suck.

It may be true that Roger Clemens had never previously given up six runs in the first inning of any game in his major league career, but in fact he has had worse games. Retrosheet tells us that Clemens has given up nine runs in a game six times, eight runs in a game ten times, seven runs 18 times, through 2003. He's even given up six runs in an inning on more than one occasion (as recently as last August and as long ago as 1987). He's given up two homers in a game over 60 times, and I know that at least a few of those occurred with multiple dingers in an inning.

So ultimately, there's a lot more evidence to suggest that this was a fluke than anything else. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Or if they try to, at least don't let them convince you that Piazza is actually descended from Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ.

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