MIAMI – There hardly seemed a better place for a midseason, uncounted exhibition game than the pastel ballpark owned by the guy who’s made his money and is getting out and maybe moving to France, a ballpark where the home team might be owned next by Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter or Pitbull and Jeb Bush, because it’s all make believe, just as it was intended.
The All-Star Game is supposed to be a little quaint, a little dumb, a little goofy, and a lot about throwin’ a hundy and swinging as hard as you can, then between innings standing at your position and talking to the guy with a microphone in the gray suit, when the guy with the microphone in the gray suit is, oh hey, Alex Rodriguez.
Forced to confront the reality the All-Star Game counts for only whatever cool thing happened in the Home Run Derby the night before and then the television revenue the actual game generates, it was as we left it in 2002. That is, tied, for a very long time.
When that ’02 game in Milwaukee petered out in a 7-7 sigh, the 2003 game awarded World Series home-field advantage, which everybody thought was a pretty terrible idea, so it only lasted 14 years. The format gave us, among other things, a World Series Game 7 in Cleveland last year for the 103-win Chicago Cubs (they won) and a World Series Game 7 in St. Louis in 2011 for the 96-win Texas Rangers (they lost). Maybe that didn’t seem wholly fair, but then somebody ought to have pitched better to Eric Hosmer, a Kansas City Royal, and Prince Fielder, a Milwaukee Brewer, the All-Star MVPs those years, four months earlier.
This Time It Counts became, rather quickly, Really, Why? But, on they went, and on we went with them, until everyone came to their senses, and on Tuesday night at Marlins Park in the 88th All-Star Game we got Yadier Molina dressed up as C-3PO, and Kenley Jansen balking in the ninth inning and giggling over it, and Nelson Cruz getting his picture taken with Joe West, and The Freeze getting dusted between innings, and Jeff Conine handing out hot dogs in the press box, and a cardboard cutout of a topless Terry Francona somewhere, and AL manager Brad Mills with gum on his hat.
Not that none of that could have happened before, but in a suddenly very serious world, in a sport that takes itself very seriously, the levity of Nelson Cruz arm-in-arm with Joe West while the catcher snapped a pic made it feel like we’d come to the right place. Even the subtleties – Houston’s Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve turning a slick double play in the second inning, then celebrating with an airy, choreographed handshake – helped bring the game back to its proper place. That is, as a game, one played with a smile, one played out from under the weight of the daily grind.
“I would bet,” NL manager Joe Maddon said, “had this game counted he wouldn’t have done that.”
Said Bryce Harper, with a laugh, “It was definitely different.”
And, still, there was plenty of room for baseball. Good baseball. Max Scherzer, the best pitcher in the National League for three months, against Aaron Judge, the best player in the American League for three months, in the very first inning, for one. The day after he’d hit, like, 715 home runs in the derby, Judge was the man-child everyone wanted to see, and an amped Scherzer was the perfect foe. The at-bat went six pitches, and the crowd leaned into every one of them, and then Scherzer and catcher Buster Posey agreed on a 3-and-2 slider, which Judge swung over.
So, no, Scherzer wasn’t wrapping up some grainy Game 7 out there somewhere, but he was throwing 88-mph, full-count sliders to a giant who hits home runs for a living.
“Yeah,” Scherzer said of the new/old exhibition format, “but your pride is on the line. You want to go out there and show the world you can beat the best. I don’t need anything on the line.”
He also pitched only one inning, he said, “In the best interests of the Washington Nationals. That was my call.”
As for any difference in atmosphere among the guys, Scherzer shrugged and said, “The All-Star Game is always fun, so everybody’s got a smile on their faces. It’s a 72-hour party.”
With a little baseball mixed in. With a beer or two. With a parade. With Pitbull. With funny socks and custom spikes and a lot of pastels. For 14 years the baseball pretended it was something it was not, even as everybody got a chance to play, even as players raced off to catch their flights in the sixth inning, even as they tried to have fun but not look like they were having, you know, too much fun.
It was a silly masquerade when everyone knew what was behind the mask. The players were always going to play hard. They were always going to play to win. We just didn’t want to have to hold them to it, or pretend to, because we have enough real, enough to worry about, already.
Sometimes it’s better to call it what it is, and to play Game 7 where it belongs. Sometimes it’s important to have a little gum on your hat.
“Ha,” Mills said. “Nobody will fess up to it. At the same time, I’m sure it came down from Terry.”
Oh, yeah. The AL beat the NL, 2-1. Robinson Cano homered off Wade Davis in the 10th inning. Cano’s teammates fanned him in the dugout with towels. Everybody laughed. It was fun. It was enough.
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