NEW YORK -- There are a lot of questions surrounding the All-Star Game, this year as always. Should it be more of a pure exhibition, or should everyone focus on the fact that "it counts" and the fight for World Series home-field advantage? Do you want pure spectacle, or do you want practical winning strategy? How seriously is anyone supposed to take this?
For all of that, at its heart, the game is about the baseball community getting together and gawking in amazement at its best players. Standing in the steamy Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field, J.J. Hardy gushes about Orioles teammate Chris Davis and his seemingly effortless opposite field blasts; Mike Trout sings the praises of Torii Hunter's great outfield play over the years; Nationals manager Davey Johnson admires Buster Posey's skills behind the plate; Paul Goldschmidt talks about how difficult he finds it to face Clayton Kershaw. These are athletes who understand exactly how hard it is to do what their All-Star teammates are doing, and they are legitimately impressed.
The All-Star Game comes out of a deeply-rooted human impulse, the same one responsible for so many comic book crossovers: What would happen if we took all our strongest characters and put them all together? Justice League! The Avengers! What if Wolverine and Spider-Man teamed up to fight Batman?!
That is basically what happens in the midsummer classic. Yeah, it's World Series home-field advantage, and it's an AL-NL rivalry, whatever that means these days; it's a marking of the season's halfway point (approximately), and it's an honor (both intangibly and financially) for players who have worked very, very hard to get to the pinnacle of their profession. But it's also the answer to baseball's equivalent of, What would happen if a shark fought a bear and a pterodactyl? Great matchups happen all the time in baseball, of course, and with interleague play there are now fewer permutations that we don't get to see. Even so, this night is unique for being about 90% great matchups.
So there's plenty to look forward to, but here are a few things especially worth your time.
Mets fans and non-fans alike kept waiting for Harvey to come back to earth, but it hasn't really happened, unless you count his ERA topping 2.00 as "back to earth." That would seem to indicate that he's mortal, but he's also pretty clearly the real deal, and this start, in his home park, is something of a coronation. He's a Cy Young candidate at the moment, and Tuesday night, fans who haven't seen much of him yet can get a look at why that is.
That he's one of the best few pitchers in the NL this season is not in doubt, though you could argue that Kershaw might just edge him out there -- as Kershaw himself sort of indirectly did on Monday. ("It hurts," he told the L.A. Times of Bochy's comment that Harvey was good enough to start the All-Star Game whether it had been in New York or not.) Even if Harvey has been a hair less amazing than Kershaw, well, that's nothing to sneeze at. As for Kershaw, if he really is upset about the snub, that should make his next start against National League manager Bruce Bochy's Giants all the more exciting.
Harvey has not lacked for hype this year, but it's well deserved. And besides, it's safe to say that Harvey has not yet gotten as famous as he eventually will:
Rivera is sailing through his last season with his customary grace, picking up accolades (and rocking chairs made out of broken Twins bats) at every stop. But until his final appearance in September or perhaps October, this All-Star Game is the biggest and best chance for baseball to collectively say goodbye and send him off in style. Although his reception won't be what it would in Yankee Stadium, his entrance will still be one of the game's biggest moments, whatever the score. And he will have an entrance:
"I think it would be probably the most beautiful touch in the world if we could somehow get a lead on the National League and play the ninth inning with the greatest closer of all time coming out of the bullpen," says American League manager Jim Leyland. But, even if the stars don't align quite so perfectly, "you can rest assured, he will be on the mound at some point, and you will see him pitch … you will see number 42 pitch."
Our chances to do that are dwindling fast -- hard as it may be to imagine a Rivera-less Major League Baseball -- and they should be savored.
Mike Trout and Bryce Harper
There's no real reason, other than the fact that these two debuted around the same time last season, why they should be so linked in the public mind. But linked they are. At this All-Star Game, Harper will bat ninth -- hey, it's an All-Star lineup, someone has to -- while Trout hits leadoff for the AL. Even casual fans know who these two are by now, but this is a celebration they both deserve -- much like Matt Harvey, these two are proving that they're legit. Should they be compared to each other so often? Probably not, but let's face it, we're doing it anyway.
There's been a lot of talk this All-Star Week about the "youth movement" at this game. That's been a bit overstated, since most of the players here are still somewhat more established stars, but there's no doubt that this crop of young players is grabbing everyone's attention, and rightfully so.
Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera
This is shaping up to be the 2013 version of last season's seemingly interminable Miguel Cabrera-vs.-Mike Trout AL MVP debate, but this time, mercifully, without the advanced stats-vs.-tradition overtones, at least so far. It's obviously far too early to crown anyone, but while everyone already knows what Miguel Cabrera can do, Chris Davis's first half has been absolutely jaw-dropping.
Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Jason Grilli
… okay, and Jeff Locke (even though he won't play) and Mark Melancon too. This game is packed with Pirates players, representing what at this point is almost certainly the best Pittsburgh team in decades. You have to be a heartless monster or a Phillies fan to not be at least a little happy for that team, or at least for their fans. So among all the other things that this game rightfully fetes, let's include the resurgent Three Rivers crew, who will try to take this opportunity to show everyone that this season, they're for real.
There's exactly zero debate over who will close the game for the American League, but Bruce Bochy has not appointed his own ninth inning guy yet, and he has plenty to choose from. Presumably matchups and the course of the game will impact his decision, but it still will be interesting to see who ends up there if the NL has a slim lead late. Grilli? Craig Kimbrel? Sergio Romo? Aroldis Chapman?
The Last Gasp of League Rivalries
At this point, the only real difference between the AL and NL is the designated hitter -- and with interleague play now in effect all season long, that may not be the case for much longer. Like it or not -- and many, many NL fans will protest the DH for decades, if this happens -- once that goes, what is there left to argue for the superiority of one league or another? It's not much of an issue even now; these guys are playing for home field advantage if their team still has a prayer, or for glory if it doesn't, not for the honor of their league. But in a few years, it could be completely dead. So, those of you who enjoy arguing about the superiority of either league, enjoy it while you still can.
Rules Are Rules
The game Tuesday night will be played by all the usual rules, but this week got me daydreaming about what it could look like with a few … tweaks here and there.
At Sunday's Futures Game, more or less an All-Star Game for top prospects, nothing was at stake besides trying to show off these prospects to their best advantage. As such, at some point some of baseball's most fundamental rules were unceremoniously discarded. The managers (Edgardo Alfonzo and Mookie Wilson) wanted to get everyone in the game, sure, but they didn't stop there. Billy Hamilton, the Reds' Triple-A speedster, was taken out of the game in the fifth inning. Then, in the eighth inning, he came back in as a pinch runner for George Springer. In the ninth, Springer himself came back to play right field.
I threw down my scorecard in despair, but aside from that concern, this was enormously fun -- at least if what you care about is getting to see these players do their thing, rather than the outcome of a standardized baseball game. (Admittedly it's not for everyone; the disregard for rules or sense of any kind was all too much for Sports on Earth's own Will Leitch.) Fans were there because they wanted to see Billy Hamilton show off his jets, and although it turned out he really never had to (he ended his pinch running adventure by jogging home with time to spare), the managers were doing their best to send the folks home after getting their money's worth.
It's fun to imagine what the All-Star Game could be like if it got to bend the rules a bit -- if home field advantage was not on the line and experimentation was possible. Not necessarily subbing players in and out willy-nilly, but getting a bit more imaginative.
The Reds' Brandon Phillips seems to share my view. "We play for the fans," he says. "Entertain the fans … that's what it's all about. I'm an entertainer."
So if he could change any rule for the All-Star Game, what would it be?
"How about no walks? " He suggests. "You gotta let 'em hit. You got to pitch to them."
Twins reliever Glen Perkins raised some objections to that hypothetical plan.
"How many pitches would Miguel Cabrera get to see then? … If I'm facing Joey Votto, I'm throwing him a slider in the dirt until he swings at one."
So what would Perkins do instead?
"If they made it not count," he suggests, "it'd be cool to have the position players pitch for an inning, or maybe have the pitchers hit."
Who wouldn't watch that?
Of course, most people reading this will be watching anyway. Because even without adventures in rule changing, the All-Star Game still provides plenty of action: Matt Harvey versus Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Max Scherzer or Yu Darvish versus Joey Votto or Bryce Harper. The Pirates versus history, Chris Davis versus the laws of physics. Mariano Rivera versus anyone, one last time.