By Eno Sarris
MINNEAPOLIS -- Split open routine and out melts something refreshing. Something as small as taking a different way home can re-open closed doors of perception.
So maybe it's not surprising that there are a lot of bright-eyed baseball players in Minneapolis for the All-Star Game. It's not only the accolade itself -- All-Star week is nothing like routine. And the result is actually as refreshing as it sounds trite.
There might not be more established creatures of habit than baseball players. "I never go on a baseball field to play unless it's with the same staff, the same routine, the same coaches -- everything's the same, you do it 162 times a year," said Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon. "You get comfortable and you get used to doing those things. And me especially, I have to have my routine, step-by-step."
Those routines help keep a player informed of his opposition, but they also keep him healthy. Pitchers might not have a choice but to find some time for the things they normally do. "With my OCD tendencies, I'm going to have to, at least when it comes to the stuff I do out in the bullpen," Oakland's Sean Doolittle said. "Stretches, my warmup my routine, I'll do those."
But even those routines will be disturbed. Toronto's Mark Buehrle admitted he might not be able to get a long-toss in before his appearance, since he'll be coming out of the pen. But maybe he's more suited than some starters for the format: "Just throw the ball until you're ready and get out there. I don't do any scouting in the season, so I'll do the exact same."
Catchers usually find comfort in preparing a game plan for their pitcher. They've never caught these guys. "I guess it'll be kind of like getting double switched into the game," admitted Cincinnati's Devin Mesoraco. "But then you're not even catching guys that you're used to. I'm sure it will be weird. You ask the guy on the mound, 'Hey, what are you throwing?'"
In the end, the catchers aren't too worried about unfamiliarity. "These guys are all good pitchers," admitted Mesoraco. "They hit their spots, they know how to pitch and how to beat guys. All I gotta do back there is put signals down and put my glove up." And there might not be many signals anyway. "They're not going to be setting out their whole repertoire," said Derek Norris of the A's. "They'll probably have a couple pitches they fiddle around with. And try to blow a lot of guys away, that's the All-Star Game."
There are ways the team can also help ease the loss of routine. The Giants' Tim Hudson once used a throw day to appear out of the bullpen for Atlanta, but thought his last real outing as a reliever was in the All-Star Game in 2000, when he pitched the eighth. "Most of us are going to be starting pitchers that are on a routine," Hudson said. "They can't throw us out there and tell us to get ready in 10 pitches." So the All-Star managers let each pitcher know when they'll be pitching, generally, and that allows the pitcher to pretend it's a short start rather than an emergency bullpen outing.
But there's no doubt about it. This is no normal game, and everyone's routine is blown up.
Ask around, and it quickly becomes clear that almost nobody knows who they are going to face. The Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton wasn't too worried -- "After both teams hit, it's based around 10 people, so I should be able to get what I need" -- but he's a starter. Detroit's Ian Kinsler thought you could rely on some basic tendencies and the people around you: "You kind of go low and try to lean on your teammates for information."
Maybe it's particularly the reserves who are flying blind -- Daniel Murphy, of the Mets, made a Johnny Wholestaff joke before quickly adding he hoped his Wholestaffer in the seventh or eighth wasn't going to be Chicago's Chris Sale.
So all that video work you might do before a game, all that research about pitcher tendencies and arsenals, all that focus -- there's none of it here at the All-Star Game.
What happens as a result of that loss of routine is a mixed bag, but you start to get a real sense of spontaneity and … fun.
There are the challenges, Blackmon admitted to that. San Francisco's Hunter Pence also agreed to some trepidation: "It's definitely going to be different, because I start every game -- can you handle change, can you handle adversity." But he added a qualifier. "This isn't necessarily adversity, it's an opportunity to compete. I would like to think I can handle all of it."
Listen to Murphy, and you sense how these players see this unique game: "Your routine is going to get thrown off, but with everything that's going on, the excitement of it, you'll figure it out." Seattle's Kyle Seager spends a lot of time in the video room, but not today, and that's OK. "A game like this, you're going out there and having fun and [thinking] about being around these guys and embracing the whole thing and relaxing."
It's not just that this is the All-Star Game and it's about fun and so therefore it will be fun. These players have played baseball professionally for a while now. They've woken up, put on their tools of ignorance, scouted, practiced, thought and played as hard as possible daily, and for years. This game is nothing like those games. And it's beautiful.
"You put so much time and work in -- and don't get me wrong, it's worth it, it's worth every minute you spend in there -- but the ability to just go out there and play like you're in Legion or Little League again, it's a nice break," Norris said. The catcher isn't going to worry about the game plan, or what sort of curve balls Jesse Chavez will throw, or what he will have to do at the plate to help the A's win. He's going to grab a bat and play with some friends. The things Kansas City's Alex Gordon referred to as "the grind of the season."
Maybe it sounds trite, but it just feels true. "I'm just going out there and play a baseball game like I'm a little kid and just enjoy it," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Just pinch-hit and be ready to hit like a little kid."
It's amazing what happens when you take a different way home.
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