Though there have now been back-to-back entertaining All-Star Games (and this one, as we used to say at ESPN, “moved like a rocket”), the idea that the American League has gotten home field advantage for the World Series seven consecutive years based on a game played under rules that necessarily favor the American League, must somehow be corrected.
The obvious problem is the imbalance in the intensity of offense. Though there are two fewer American League teams, the total number of starting offensive positions is still just a ratio of NL 128/AL 126. But in that virtually identically-sized talent pool, there are, at minimum, 14 offensive positions in the American League (and thus 14 potential American League All-Stars) who do not have to have much, or even any, defensive capability. Even defensively-skilled American League All-Stars are all afforded the potential opportunity to play “half games” by filling in as DH’s; their National League counterparts must either play more in the field – and thus be more worn down – or sit games out.
American League pitchers also have a slight physical advantage. While their performances are certainly taxed by the fact of facing the DH, it’s not as if they have to get four outs every inning – and the trade off is, (virtually) never having to hit, and (virtually) never having to run the bases, unlike their National League counterparts.
Finally, the All-Teams-Represented anachronism — a rule left over from the days when it was assumed television viewership in each city depended on a representative from the team in each city — clearly hurts the National League. It might not show up in a given game, but over the course of the twelve years since the 16/14 split began, this must have an impact: the NL is stuck with two more Mandatory Choices, each year, than is the AL. Tonight, the question was, which of the four solo NL guys – Francisco Cordero, Ted Lilly, Brian McCann, or Ryan Zimmerman – was ultimately of less use to Charlie Manuel than, say, a Mark Reynolds pinch-hit appearance might have been?
The solution? Two more guys on the NL roster than the AL? Eliminate the mandatory team representatives? Hard to say. But giving the American League the home field in the Series based on what is deteriorating into a self-fulfilling prophesy, is madness.
CEREMONIAL FIRST PITCHES
Four years ago I was to throw one out before a game at Staten Island of the New York-Penn League and I called an old friend of mine, a former pitcher of some prominence, for advice. From Baba-Booey to President Barack Obama, the rules he gave me should be handed out in advance to all ceremonial first pitchers (and, after tonight’s great Obama looper, kept in the President’s mind for whenever he next takes the hill).
The first rule is: don’t take the hill. “That is not there for you,” my friend said. “All you can do there is fall off. Go to the front of the mound, the skirt, and move up just far enough that it looks like you’re on the mound but you’re really going to land on level ground as you throw.”
The second rule is: aim high. “Think about every first pitch you’ve ever seen,” he said. “The ones that the catcher has to leap for, or go over his head, some people might laugh but at least a few will go ooooooooh. The ones thrown in the dirt just get moans. When it doubt, fail upwards.”
But the last rule, he said, was the most important, and, chronologically, the first. “Try to get the actual baseball early. Or — screw it — just pick up any ball that’s handy. They don’t care. Get it as early as possible: ten minutes, half an hour, whatever. And just hold on to it and pretend it makes you less nervous.” I thought he was going to go all psychological on mine. “And as you turn the ball over in your hands, as you rub it, as you look at it, pick at the seams. Use your fingernails and just pull up on every thread. Just keep doing it, as many times, to as many pieces of thread as you can. Just keep doing it.” I asked why. “You’ll see.”
I got the ball probably half an hour before the first pitch, and, while dismissing myself as a moron for following my friend’s goofy advice, I decided to adhere to it. I picked at each thread. Nothing happened. No elevation. No loosening. No sense of having done anything to the ball. A decided sense of my friend, in a distant city, chuckling as he thought of me pointlessly pulling at red threads that wouldn’t budge.
I warned the Staten Island catcher P.J. Piliterre (who I was delighted to see in Tampa last March, in camp with the big boys; good luck with spelling that battery of Pettitte and Piliterre) that I would aim high, then trotted out to the front skirt of the mound, gave the seams a few final tugs, and fired. The immediate good news: it was relatively close to the plate. The immediate bad news: he might have to reach up for it.
Then the miracle happened.
A few feet in front of the plate, as unexpectedly and sharply as if it had been hit by a bullet or an arrow, my first pitch dropped, a good eighteen inches. Piliterre had to drop his glove to catch what would have been, dare I say it, mistaken for an off-speed overhand curveball, for a strike. Piliterre was laughing as he met me near the plate to give me the ball: “I see you’ve been picking at the seams.”
The Blue Jays’ visit here allowed me to visit with an old, old acquaintance. “Still the highlight of that season,” Scott Rolen insisted again, for at least the third time since it happened, just the other day – in 1996.
The late Bill Robinson was managing the Reading Phillies of the Eastern League. I had known him since I was a kid and he was the next great Yankee superstar who fizzled out, only to reclaim a terrific career as a clutch 4th Outfielder for the Phillies and Pirates. Robby sent me a note one day, saying he wanted to give his team a tour of ESPN the next time they came to play in nearby New Britain, Connecticut, and he dangled considerable bait. If I arranged it, he’d let me be his bench coach for one of the games against the newly-christened “Rock Cats,” who played only about twelve minutes from my house.
I did not let Bill know I would’ve given his guys the tour, no charge.
They got the guided visit (far less interesting than it would seem, then or now), and Robby and I agreed on a date. And soon I was there with him on the bench, in full uniform, and wearing the spare shoes of the only guy with feet approaching mine, the one and only Wayne Gomes. Robinson even made me work for my living: I had to chart hits and defense. But mostly I was there to talk to the kids on the team, no fewer than fourteen of whom eventually made the majors (though they weren’t all there at that juncture). The highlights were Marlon Anderson, as great a guy then as now, Bobby Estalella, Matt Beech, and Rolen, who spent half his time practicing an imaginary golf swing.
I also took some ribbing from the pitching coach, Larry Andersen, most of it along the lines of “I’m getting paid to do this. What’s your excuse?” That’s when I reminded him he was in New Britain, where the guy he had been traded for in 1990 had insufficiently impressed the parent Red Sox. “What was his name, Larry? Bagwell? Whatever happened to him?”
It was, of course, a tremendous education. As I’ve alluded to before, it would obviously be the dream of any fan to watch a game from such a venue, with such entree to the process. But how much you learn and how many presuppositions you are disabused of. And the game moves twice as fast as it does from the stands or the press box, which is why players stare blankly at you when you talk about enforcing speed-up rules.
And then there’s the practical joking. In the 7th, as I was explaining the ESPN experience to two players, one of whom was an infielder named Matt Guiliano, the other guy barked out at umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, “Hey, Blue, where was that one?” Wendelstedt ripped off his mask and barked “who said that?” The complaining player and Guiliano both pointed at me, and Wendelstedt promptly ejected me from the game.
He ran me.
I thought it was quite funny and I continued to sit in my spot on the bench and started to resume my story to Guiliano when Bill Robinson came over. “You know, he really did throw you out. You’ll have to go. But you should give him hell before you do.” I ran out onto the field and as Wendelstedt barely contained his laughter, I started screaming at him. As I recall, it went like this: “My one lousy game in uniform and you run me? I can see you’re going to make the big leagues and not just because your Daddy’s an umpire. And let me promise you, one day I will be avenged. I will get a highlight of you and I will run you into the ground with it. Your father will change his name to Runge. I swear!” Then I kicked dirt on the plate and on him and I said “Okay, have I put on enough of a show?” and he sputtered out yes, and I left, throwing my shoes and cap as I did (I retrieved the cap).
Six years later, Rolen had already gone from the Phils to the Cards and they appeared at Yankee Stadium and I saw him near the cage and went over to ask him if he remembered it, when I suddenly realized he was running over to me. “Where was that when they threw you out of our game?” I told him, New Britain, in 1996. “The highlight of my season,” he said. We both laughed and I reminded him that a few weeks later he was called up to Philly to make his big league debut. “Like I said,” he said dryly. “Highlight of my season.”
Sunday afternoon we visited briefly and we repeated the exchange. “I know, I know, the year I broke in. Still the highlight of that season.”
You could expand the All-Star Rosters to 75 guys and somebody would still have a complaint, but Mark Reynolds isn’t going? The only thing besides Justin Upton keeping the Diamondbacks from sinking into the PCL?… Chad Gaudin looked like a BP pitcher in the first inning Friday against the Dodgers, then recovered fairly well thereafter, but still has a little ways to go. On the other hand, Rule V shortstop draftee Everth Cabrera may be there already… the Pirates may be serious about dealing Matt Capps. If they can get a juicy package for him, and something that will make them all go dreamy like they have over Charlie Morton, they’ll do it… and lastly, if this hasn’t shown up anywhere, old Yankee Stadium is now enmeshed in protective netting like a widow at a funeral, and the bit-by-bit demolition of the superstructure isn’t far off. I was literally offered a full piece of the outfield frieze and the price was not a blood-letting for unique stuff like that. But then they said it weighed a ton and I said “I bet it does,” and they said “no, literally, it weighs 2,000 pounds” and I envisioned apartment walls collapsing and I said no, thank you kindly.