Charlie Morton walked around the American League clubhouse in Cleveland’s Progressive Field wearing a T-shirt saying, “Openers Are Human, Too.” Referencing the semi-trend his Rays took up a couple of seasons ago, of starting a game with a pitcher who’d go an inning or two before turning it over to the bullpen. Little did he know. Or did he?
This year’s All-Star Game turned out to be a game of openers even if the openers—Justin Verlander (Astros) for the American League, Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers) for the National League—and most of their relief on the night are starting pitchers by profession.
What it didn’t turn out to be was a game that reflected the season to date, despite assorted prognosticators anticipating home runs flying often and all over the place.
And it launched on a Let-The-Kids-Have-Fun note of its own, when Freddie Freeman (Braves) faced Verlander with two out in the first. Freeman agreed to be miked for the Fox Sports telecast, with the world knowing he’d ask Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, now a Fox analyst, to tell him what starting catcher Gary Sanchez (Yankees) put down for Verlander. Fat chance.
He and Verlander played the at-bat like a pair of pranksters, almost, even when Verlander caught him looking at a fastball on the outer edge and a naughty curve ball that landed smack dab on the floor of the zone, before Verlander followed a slider inside (Freeman admitted on the air he was looking fastball there) by catching Freeman looking at strike three, a near-cutter hitting the same spot as that naughty curve.
It was all either Freeman or Verlander could do to keep from falling apart laughing as the leagues changed sides for the bottom of the first.
American League manager Alex Cora (defending world champion Red Sox) used nine pitchers, one per inning. Verlander’s relief Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees) got the credit for the win; six pitchers—Jose Berrios (Twins), Lucas Giolito (White Sox), Shane Bieber (Indians), Liam Hendriks (Athletics), Shane Greene (Tigers), and Brad Hand (Indians)—got credit for holds; Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) got credit for a save.
National League manager Dave Roberts (defending National League champion Dodgers) also used nine pitchers, but they covered eight innings. Ryu’s relief (and Dodgers rotation mate) Clayton Kershaw was handed the official loss; Jacob deGrom (Mets), Luis Castillo (Reds), Walker Buehler (Dodgers), and Mike Soroka (Braves) worked an inning each; Brandon Woodruff (Brewers) and Will Smith (Giants) shared the seventh inning; and, Sandy Alcantara (Marlins) worked the eighth.
If this had happened on both sides of a regular season game, the purists would have reached for the whiskey bottles if not gone Elvis on the television sets. It got even crazier with the American League’s 4-3 win in a game in which thirteen total hits produced seven total runs and only two of the runs came by way of home runs.
Charlie Blackmon (Rockies) spoiled Hendriks’s sixth inning, with two outs on strikeouts (Kris Bryant [Cubs] looking; Trevor Story [Rockies] swinging), by hitting a 1-0 fastball over the right center field wall. And Joey Gallo (Rangers)— after the AL scored its third run off pinch-hitter Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) dialing a ducks-on-the-pond Area Code 6-4-3 (with Matt Chapman [Athletics] scoring the third AL run), knocking out Woodruff and bringing in Smith—tore Smith’s first service over the right field wall in the bottom of the seventh.
Gallo teed off an inning after two of the only bright lights for the Mets so far this season took care of all three American League outs. Jeff McNeil, inserted into left field, caught a pair of fly outs sandwiching a dazzling play in which Pete Alonso, Monday night’s Home Run Derby winner, picked off a tough throw from Max Muncy (Dodgers) playing second base but stationed at the grass and moving swift to stop Daniel Vogelbach’s (Mariners) hopper from turning into a base hit.
Then Alonso in the eighth ripped a pads-padded liner up the pipe for a two-run single to bring the National League to within a single run for the second time of the night. Blackmon’s bomb took them there the first time, after the American League pried a 2-0 lead out thanks to Astro scoring Astro off Kershaw in the first (Michael Brantley—given a nice ovation from his former home audience in Cleveland—banging a double off the left center field wall to send Alex Bregman home) and Twin (Jorge Polanco, hitting a bouncer Muncy knocked down but beating the throw to first for a hit) scoring Yankee (Gary Sanchez, with a leadoff double).
The other Met bright light at the All-Star Game, deGrom, became the National League’s first pitcher of the evening to retire the side in order when he worked the third. Castillo became the second with a 1-2-3 fourth; Soroka became the third with that 1-2-3 sixth abetted by McNeil and Alonso. Alcantara did it the hard way in the eighth, striking out Merrifield after Gleyber Torres (Yankees) opened with a single, then getting Jose Abreu (White Sox) to dial his own Area Code 6-4-3 to end the inning.
If there was a real star of the show other than Verlander’s and Freeman’s first inning hijinks, it was Bieber, the Indian starter against whom the rest of the American League hits only .214 so far this season. (At least one listener of my acquaintance heard his name as “Chained Beaver.” Go figure, and don’t ask.)
He struck out the side masterfully in the top of the fifth, catching Willson Contreras (Cubs) looking at a fastball on the corner, finishing a seven-pitch battle with Ketel Marte (Diamondbacks) with a swinging strikeout on what looked like a knuckle curve taking a swan dive, and ending another seven-pitch battle by catching Ronald Acuna, Jr. (Braves) looking at a slider that landed right down the chute.
Not even Chapman striking out the side to end the game was quite as crowd pleasing as Bieber was, even allowing that Bieber worked in his own home park. It landed him the prize as the All-Star Game’s most valuable player. But he may need to work a little bit on his postgame pithiness. “Baseball,” he said, referencing the lack of bombing in the year of the bomb, “is a funny game.” Joe Garagiola, call your office.
“”It was electric out there,” said Cora after the game. “the fans got in it and it was fun. And I’m glad that [Bieber] got the MVP. He plays at this level. He’s really good.”
Bieber made the All-Star team in the first place because Rangers pitcher Mike Minor’s eligibility vaporised when he pitched on Sunday. He’s now only the third All-Star to earn the game’s MVP in his home ballpark, joining Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez (Fenway Park, 1999) and Sandy Alomar, Jr. (then-Jacobs Field, 1997).
The only thing that got close to topping the Verlander-Freeman Show in the first was a series of scoreboard blunders during the game. When not misspelling Contreras’s and David Dahl’s (Rockies) names, they spelled McNeil’s name right—but showed deGrom’s smiling mug instead. Nothing against deGrom, of course, but McNeil was less than amused.
“I didn’t really like that,” he lamented. “I wanted to see my picture up there. I know my family did, too. What are you going to do, I guess, but I don’t think that should happen.”
It’s not unusual for things to happen that shouldn’t happen even in baseball games. Think about this: None of the sixteen American League pitchers on the 2017 All-Star team made this year’s model. The National League presented the youngest starting lineup in All-Star history, its average age 26. And both sides combined presented 36 first-time All-Stars.
Both leagues also wore a patch on their uniforms with a number 45, a tribute to the late Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs; and, American League participants Mike Trout (who started the game) and Tommy La Stella (who didn’t get to appear) switched their uniform numbers to 45 in memory of their lost teammate.
If you’re thinking all the foregoing could prevent a little pre-game controversy, think again. Remember what put these All-Star teams together in the first place: a ridiculous “primary” vote for fans that let them vote five times and produced a “Starter’s Election” more notable for worthy snubs.
More players spoke out about how broken the All-Star ballots and votes were this year than in the past. What does that tell you?
And Commissioner Rob Manfred, who’s showing more and more of an ability to trip over himself, not to mention an increasing genius for pointing the way to wisdom by standing athwart it, did it again.
Manfred denies he awarded Cleveland this year’s All-Star Game contingent on tanking longtime logo Chief Wahoo—despite meeting with the Indians in 2017, announcing then that Cleveland would get the 2019 game, and announcing concurrently that the Tribe agreed to dump the Chief.
And Manfred replied to Verlander’s accusation that this year’s ball’s been juiced by saying MLB hasn’t altered or encouraged altering the balls—just a couple of weeks after the commissioner suggested a better-centered core was behind the balls’ reduced drag in flight.
This is the same commissioner who continues to insist that if baseball’s should-be marquee players aren’t on as many marquees as they ought to be, it’s . . . the players’ faults that they game they play and love can’t figure out ways to promote them properly enough.
The same commissioner who fiddles while the Mets—reduced to a clown show that’s as funny as a tax audit by the ham-fisted, brain-challenged touch of their owner and his near-clueless chief operating son—self-immolate. Imagine if a non-sports franchise enterprise did nothing while one or another franchisee reduced his or her stores or store groups to that kind of rubble.
Say what you will about Manfred’s predecessor, but at least Bud Selig dropped the scales from his eyes if only for the moments just long enough, after Frank McCourt compromised the Dodgers by turning the team into his personal ATM machine, and forced McCourt to sell the franchise.
And while Major League Baseball Players Association director Tony Clark agrees that baseball’s asleep at the switch when it comes to promoting its stars, Clark, like Manfred, says nothing still about redressing a very real grievance—the short, even blink-of-an-eye career players from 1949-80 who were frozen out of the 1980 pension plan realignment that now vested health benefits after one day’s major league service and now provided a retirement allowance after 43 days major league time.
Eight years ago, Selig and then-Players Association director Michael Weiner realigned the realignment, sort of: the frozen-out players would get $625 per 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a sixteen-quarter limit, equal to $10,000 before taxes. But when such players pass away before collecting the final such payments, the money can’t be passed to their families.
The thinking person’s sport continues to be governed by people who can’t or won’t think.