Column: So much for inferiority complexes in Major League Baseball
July 11, 2012
One league has more money to throw around, better hitters, better pitchers, better teams and a nearly decade-long streak of dominance in interleague play.
The other just won the All-Star game for the third year in a row. So much for inferiority complexes.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to the National League again,” American League manager Ron Washington said.
He’s just hoping Tuesday night’s 8-0 beating wasn’t another omen. The NL wins in the 2010 and 2011 Midsummer Classics locked up home-field advantage in the World Series for the Giants and Cardinals. Both went on to beat Washington’s Texas Rangers in the fall.
“They came out, swung the bats, and once they got the lead, started bringing those arms in …” Washington added glumly, “and they got the job done.”
With hindsight it’s a lot easier to argue why one team of millionaires appeared more motivated than the other in an exhibition game only a few players on either side were wild about attending.
The four San Francisco starters who played important roles in helping the NL crack the game open early arrived in Kansas City a few days ago trailed by echoes their fans had stuffed the ballot box – which they apparently had. If that bothered Pablo Sandoval or Melky Cabrera, neither let on. Giants catcher Buster Posey arrived as the NL’s all-time leading vote-getter and tried not to act embarrassed. Right-hander Matt Cain, whose 10 first-half wins included a perfect game and made him a plenty legitimate choice to start, had to dodge questions about why NL manager Tony La Russa chose him over the Mets’ R.A. Dickey.
And then there was Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. The NL’s reigning MVP is on something resembling a “vindication tour.” Coming off a career year in 2011, the 28-year-old Braun spent much of the offseason defending himself – first after testing positive for a banned substance and then, after his suspension was overturned, against the charge that he beat the rap on a technicality. Asked ahead of the game whether his explosive first-half performance was proof that performance-enhancers played no part in his climb, Braun coolly answered yes. Then he went out and played like an All-Star yet again. He doubled, tripled and turned in a pair of nifty defensive plays, including one against former teammate Prince Fielder.
While Cain was stifling an AL lineup that resembled the first round of a fantasy draft, Braun and his Giants teammates collected five runs off AL starter Justin Verlander in the first, then put the game effectively out of reach in the fourth – with some assistance from Cardinals Rafael Furcal and Matt Holliday – by pounding Matt Harrison for another three runs.
Afterward, Washington still seemed surprised by Verlander’s decision to begin the game throwing heat. The manager couldn’t find too many nice things to say about the strategy, so he said almost nothing at all.
“Well, it’s very disappointing, because we’re competitors and we want to win,” Washington said.
The Tigers’ ace had an explanation ready. Verlander said he usually doesn’t register triple digits on the radar gun until well into a game, but decided to try early in this one to give the fans a show.
“Obviously, you don’t want to go out like that, but I had fun,” Verlander said. “That’s why I don’t try to throw 100 (mph) in the first inning, but this is for the fans. It doesn’t usually work out too well for me.
“I know this game means something and you don’t want to give up runs, but we’re here for the fans,” he repeated a moment later. “I know the fans don’t want to see me throw 90 and try to hit the corners.”
One glance at the steadily declining TV ratings makes you wonder how much the fans really want to see. Last year’s game in Phoenix was the lowest-rated ever, continuing a trend Commissioner Bud Selig hoped to avert by putting home-field advantage in the World Series at stake.
Then again, this one had more appeal than a few recent games. Familiar faces like Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, at 40 playing in his eighth and final All-Star game, mingled with the fresh ones belonging to the next generation of stars, kids like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Fox showcased new hire Erin Andrews and trotted out a promotional campaign reminding us of the game’s old-time virtues: “When we see the boys of summer actually be boys.”
That may have been true about a few too many of the guys on the American League bench, at least for this one night. La Russa took some heat a day earlier – including in this space – for his decision to start Cain over fan favorite Dickey, a 37-year-old journeyman whose first All-Star appearance came after a long struggle to master the knuckleball. Apparently, that nasty little competitive streak grew wide enough to make a big difference.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.