Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Eight All-Star Games That Stand the Test of Time

by Alan Eliot

There's a lot of hoopla leading up to the all-star game, but we've seen all of this before. Well, mostly.

As different as this year may feel, 2006 has been like many others. Every year, people who should make the team don't (Johan Santana, Curt Schilling, and nearly Francisco Liriano, to name a few). Every year, people who should not make the team do (Mark Redman, Bobby Jenks, Derrick Turnbow, etc.). We rant. We rave.

Seven White Sox players in a year where two belong. We rant. We rave. But yet it's nothing new. Nepotism- we've seen that before. Even as nauseating as seen in 2006. Remember in 2001, when no Yankees were fan-selected- but yet we watched Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and Mike Stanton- yes, Mike Stanton- take the field for the AL.

Today, many of our best will take the field, represent their teams, and take their hacks. One team (probably the AL) will win and one will lose. There will be a hero, or two. There will be exciting moments that get talked about for a week or two, and perhaps get brought up every once in a while after that. In the end though, the events of today's game will probably be forgotten. Nothing new. Just like every year.

Well, just like most years.

Every once in a while, something makes an All-Star game stand out, and take its place among the most memorable all-star games of all-time. Today, we profile some of those that have managed to stand out among all of the rest:

1. "First one" - In 1933, a sports editor for the Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward, concocted the All-Star game as a one-time event that would be an adjunct to the World's Fair in Chicago. That "one-time" event quickly became "first-annual". You can see the lineups for the respective teams here.

2. "Five in a row" - In 1934, the second year of the all-star game, NY Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell struck out five AL all-stars in a row. You may have heard of them: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. All five batters, and pitcher, are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

3. "Williams hits the eephus" - Rip Sewell pitched in 390 games, going 143-97 over a successful career. Amazingly, all but five of those games occured at the age of 30 and above. Even more amazingly, his career was based on a pitch called the "eephus", meaning "nothing" in Hebrew. The eephus was thrown slowly, and quite high. Often, it would eventually land snugly in the catcher's mitt for a strike. More often, players would take their cuts at a very, very slow ball, and would make fools of themselves. Considering how fat of a pitch the eephus seems to be, it is amazing that Sewell pitched his entire career without anybody homering off his signature pitch. Well, at least in official games. In the 1946 All-Star game, reportedly Sewell threw the eephus by Ted Williams, who swung badly and missed. Williams dared him to throw another one. Sewell obliged. History was made, and the only homerun ever hit off of the eephus was hit by the greatest hitter that ever was.

4. "Seven Starting Reds" - By the late 1940's, with the All-Star game becoming a mainstay of baseball, MLB began a tradition of allowing fans to vote for starters. In 1957, controversy erupted as seven of eight NL position players voted by the fans were Reds. It turns out, a local Cincinnati newspaper printed pre-filled ballots in one of its editions. Reds fans stuffed the ballot boxes, and when the dust settled, Stan Musial of the Cards stood at 1B, and every other NL position player was a Red. Outraged, the commissioner removed two Reds from the game. More importantly, he removed the right to vote for all-stars from the fans. This ban lasted through 1969. The next game with fan voting would also be surronded by controversy...

5. "The Ray Fosse Game" - In 1970, Ray Fosse was an up-and-coming 23-year-old catcher for the Indians. He had just been chosen to his first All-Star game. The game itself was hard-fought, and the NL rallied back from 3 down in the bottom of the ninth to tie it up and bring it into extra innings. In the bottom of the 12th, Pete Rose, playing in front of his hometown Cincinnati crowd, singled, and moved to second on another single. When Jim Hickman singled, Rose knew it would be a close play at the plate. He plowed very hard into Fosse at the plate, in a move that he would be criticized for for years to come. Rose scored. The NL won. Fosse, a righty, dislocated his right shoulder, and was never the same player again.

6. "Goodbye to Cal" - For years, the problem with fan voting has been the phenomenon of popular players getting voted into the All-Star game when beyond their prime- and thus undeserving. Such was the case with Cal Ripken, who was a mainstay at the All-Star game years after he had actually earned it through play on the field. He was loudly criticized for single-mindedly pursuing "The Streak", whereas the last several hundred of those games - several hundred- saw us watch Cal's baseball skills deteriorate in front of our eyes. And yet he played. Such was the atmosphere surrounding the 2001 All-Star game. Cal. Again. Hey let someone who deserves it play! Sure, he was voted in- but based on name alone. Here were his stats up to the All-Star game in 2001, by the way: .240 average, four homers, 28 RBIs (source). But we all know what happened next- in his final All-Star game, in his final season, he homered, and took home MVP honors.

7. "Outrage" - In the 2002 All-Star game in Milwaukee, the NL and AL went into extra innings, knotted at 7 apiece. In a move that tested the limits of the theory that the All-Star game "didn't matter", Commissioner and Milwaukee native (who had also run the Brewers) Bud Selig called the game after 11 innings. No one won. Outrage ensued. Years of watching stars "skip out" on the All-Star game for a nice rest culminated in the most lackadaisical ending of an All-Star game ever, and fans were not happy. The message seemed clear: this game is meaningless. Selig realized quickly his gaff, and changed the rules of the game thereafter: from then on, league that wins the game gets home-field advantage in the World Series. Suddenly, the game mattered. And how.

8. "Perfect Gagne" - From August 2002-July 2004, Eric Gagne of the Dodgers was one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB. In fact, he was perfect. 84 for 84. No blown saves. According to mlb.com, "In the nearly 23 months between blown Gagne saves, 18 teams changed managers...[d]uring the streak he had a 0.82 ERA with 43 hits allowed and 141 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings." Seems amazing. Like Sewell's distinction, this one also has an asterisk near it. It happened, but it didn't. In the 2003 All-Star game, Eric Gagne gave up a 2-run homer to Hank Blalock in the 9th, and the NL lost to the AL, 7-6. A blown save. Sort of.

But that's the way it's always been with the All-Star game, right? We don't know if it should matter or not. It matters too much (Rose), and we get upset. It matters too little (11th ining tie), and we get upset. But that's what's great about the All-Star game- no matter what the outcome, it gives us, the fans, an annual built-in forum to debate baseball.

And every once in a while, the game itself, through the magic of randomness, becomes a forum for a memory that lasts years beyond the hoopla, and the bickering, that we fans seem so eager to place upon it.

We welcome you, in our comments section, to voice your memorable all-star moments. Enjoy the game!

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine