As long as you don't actually count the games, we are now half way through the 2014 Major League Baseball season. We know that not because we counted the games (never count the games!), we know that because the All-Star Game is upon us. The All-Star Game is baseball's mid-summer showcase, a time when the very best gather together to hot dog in the sun, play a fun and possibly ever-so-slightly-more-leisurely-than-usual game of baseball, and pretend to care about home field advantage in the World Series. But, for fans that closely followed the first three and a half months of the season, the All-Star Game represents a stress-free break; a time when baseball can be all fun and losing doesn't matter. It's the time when baseball gives us the ability to root for guys we normally wish would publicly humiliate themselves, or, even better, the capacity to be indifferent to them. Ahh, sweet apathy.
And now I've gone one paragraph without mentioning Derek Jeter, which qualifies as burying the lead. Jeter is front and center of this, his final All-Star Game. The New York Yankees shortstop and future Hall of Famer was voted to start at shortstop by the fans and put atop the lineup by AL manager John Farrell. This shouldn't be construed as anything less than a tremendous honor. Jeter's skills have deteriorated, but his place in the game hasn't moved backwards an inch. If anything, he's more revered than ever. Sure, the AL might be stronger with Alexei Ramirez at short and Mike Trout leading off, but this is Derek Jeter and the fact that this All-Star Game determines home field advantage in the World Series can take a back seat as we all celebrate his contributions.
This will be Jeter's 14th All-Star Game, a number that sounds both impressively high and shockingly low. Most players don't come close to having 14-year careers, and yet Jeter is about to play in his 14th All-Star Game. That's just silly. With that being said, this is Jeter's 20th season. Have there really been six seasons in the last 20 when Jeter didn't make the All-Star team? Somehow, yes. In 2003 and 2005 Jeter finished 21st and tenth in the MVP balloting yet didn't make the All-Star Game either year. In 2003 Alex Rodriguez started at shortstop and Nomar Garciaparra was the back up. In 2005, Miguel Tejada started and Michael Young backed him up. I'm sure those seemed like reasonable choices at the time. Jeter also didn't make the All-Star team in his first three seasons despite winning the Rookie of the Year and finishing 24th for the MVP in 1997. In fact, Jeter didn't make the All-Star Team until his fourth season, almost 1,500 plate appearances into his career. The sixth season he missed was last season when Jeter was out most of the year with injuries.
Jeter's final All-Star Game calls to mind Cal Ripken's last All-Star Game in 2001. Ripken was also an icon, had also played his entire career with one organization, and also like Jeter it was known that the '01 All-Star Game would be his last. Ripken's at-bat to lead off the third inning for the AL was fittingly delayed by a mammoth standing ovation from the Safeco Field fans. Like Jeter, Ripken had a knack for seizing the moment, and in this instance as in others he didn't disappoint, jumping on the first pitch for a line drive homer to left. It was a magical moment, one that we've seen much of over the last few decades of All-Star Games. That seems an unlikely and honestly unfair thing to require of Jeter, whose career already contains enough memorable moments to fill multiple DVDs, but great players often step up in huge situations, and as Jeter has often demonstrated over his career, he is one of the greats.
Moving to the teams, the starting pitchers for the game were announced as Adam Wainwright for the NL and Felix Hernandez for the AL. Manager John Farrell has quite the stable of talent and could reasonably pick Jon Lester, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, David Price, or Max Scherzer to start for the American League, and none would feel like wrong answers to the question. Felix is probably the best answer though as he satisfies both the great season and great career crowds, is still (somehow) young, and is as close an approximation of Clayton Kershaw as the AL can get. For the NL, well, Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, a fact you can dispute only if you wear blinders with San Francisco Giants logos, if you're the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, or if you don't believe in facts. Of course, the man deciding who starts fits at least one of those criteria. As ESPN's Keith Law noted, with two more outs Kershaw would qualify for the ERA title and would therefore lead the league in ERA, FIP, strikeout rate, walk rate, and would have the second smallest home run rate. There is no reasonable argument to start anyone but Kershaw for the NL. That said, Wainwright is a tremendous pitcher and it's hard to be anything but upbeat about a team's chances to win any game when he's on the mound.
While the AL might have the deeper pitching staff and the NL the best pitcher, the reverse is true of the lineups. The AL has the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, but the NL has the deeper lineup. As great as Nelson Cruz has been this season, we know he's not this good. Josh Donaldson has taken a step back this season and Sal Perez is an excellent young catcher, but not the equal of Jonathan Lucroy. Jeter, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Bautista are all in their 30s. For the NL, only Aramis Ramirez and Chase Utley are in their 30s (and keep in mind Bryce Harper didn't make the team this year). The reserves aren't as young but they notably contain two young star Cubs in Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. When was the last time you saw two very young and very good Chicago Cubs on an All-Star Team or, heck, any team including the Cubs?
Also notable, this 85th All-Star Game will be Bud Selig's last as commissioner, at least until he announces in late August he is staying on for a few more years. Much can and has been said about the accomplishments of Selig's commissionership, including the introduction of inter-league play and the longest stretch of labor peace the game has known since the advent of free agency, but perhaps the most striking moment of his reign came somewhat oddly during an All-Star Game. After 11 innings, Selig opted to end the 2002 All-Star Game in a tie. The decision was met with near universal condemnation and highlighted a fact baseball had been working to obscure, that the game was an exhibition where the results didn't matter. It wasn't Selig's decision alone, indeed he made it jointly with the AL and NL managers at the time, Joe Torre and Bob Brenly, but it was his decision and he still owns it today. Asked about it recently he said, "We were [expletive] out of pitchers!" Which, when you think about it, is a pretty strong point. How they got there is debatable but once you're there, you're there.
Following the 2002 debacle, baseball declared the All-Star Game should count for something by adding the tagline "This Time It Counts," but mostly by giving home field advantage to the league that won the game. This hasn't been much more popular than ending the game in a tie and, judging by my joke in the opening paragraph of this piece, it still isn't.
But if nothing else baseball evolves. It's possible the next commissioner (rumored to be one Alan H. "Bud" Seliger, a guy with huge dark eye glasses and a fake-looking mustache) will alter the incentives in the All-Star Game to subtract the home field advantage component or to add free ice cream for the winners. The point isn't so much where we are now, as where we're going, and baseball, for all the articles written about its demise, is stronger and more popular than it's ever been. The 2014 season is shaping up to be more proof of this, with the A's and Tigers as duel powers in the AL, and seven clubs within a game and a half of first place in the NL. So, enjoy watching the best players in baseball compete in the 2014 All-Star Game and savor that deep breath of fresh stress-free air, because the second half of the season, the trade deadline, and the pennant races are coming.