Finally (and thankfully), we had a winner at a classic All-Star Game
NEW YORK -- By the time baseball's annual All-Star extravaganza blew its way past Tuesday evening and into Wednesday, the "Who" of the matter quickly gave way to the "If." As the managers reached into the recesses of their bullpens and exhausted their exhausted benches, as big plays were made and big opportunities continually squandered, the question on everybody's mind at Yankee Stadium no longer was whether the American League would win again. It was if anyone would.
That's the way All-Star Games go sometimes, you know. Given their semi-recent history, sometimes they don't end as much as they just ... expire.
This one, though, thankfully wouldn't end with another undignified tie. Instead, after a record-tying 15 innings and a record-shattering four hours and 50 minutes, after every player on each team that could be used was used -- and some, possibly, abused -- the AL finally put away the NL, 4-3. It was one of the most remarkable, frustrating, thrilling, patience-shattering exhibition games in the long history of the sport.
"It was a great day," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, "besides the fact that the game took forever. But it was fun."
The win in the last All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium -- it had been practically billed that way for more than a year -- continued the AL's mastery of the sad-sack NL, which hasn't won one of these things since 1996. The only non-loss in that time for the NL came, memorably, in a 2002 11-inning tie in Milwaukee that prompted baseball to up the All-Star rosters to 32 players per team and award home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner.
The five games since then have all gone smoothly enough, at least for the AL. But Tuesday, almost from the start, this one seemed destined for something ... else.
The NL took a 2-0 lead, the first run coming on an opposite-field home run from Colorado's Matt Holliday. The AL tied it up with -- horrors of all horrors in Yankee Stadium -- a two-run homer from Boston's J.D. Drew. The NL struck back in the eighth with a run off Boston's Jonathan Papelbon (to the delight, somewhat strangely, of the Yankees fans). The AL tied it in the bottom of the inning.
And then they played on and on and on. And on some more. The NL got its leadoff hitter on in the ninth. Nothing. The AL had its first two on in the 10th. Nothing. The AL had its leadoff man on in the 11th and 12th, the NL in the 12th and 13th. Nothing. And some more nothing.
Sprinkled in there were throwouts at the plate, three errors by Florida second baseman Dan Uggla and a slow but steady exodus of theretofore hearty New York fans.
Then finally -- finally! -- in the bottom of 15th, with the NL on its last pitcher, Minnesota's Justin Morneau singled off Philadelphia's Brad Lidge, Tampa Bay's Dioner Navaro singled Morneau to second, Drew walked to load the bases and Texas second baseman Michael Young -- who hit a game-winning two-run triple in the 2006 game -- lofted a fly ball to right field that was just deep enough.
The throw from Milwaukee's Corey Hart was a little on the first-base side of home, and Morneau slid in just ahead of the tag from Atlanta catcher Brian McCann. Somewhere, commissioner Bud Selig -- who took the blame for the 2002 debacle -- let out a long, slow exhale.
And if Morneau would have been nailed at the plate?
"I think we were an inning away from a tie," said Young. "And I don't think that would have been bad at all. If it takes 15 or 16 to do it ... hey, we've done all we can do."
The situation was dire enough all game long that it practically tied Boston's Terry Francona into knots.
"You know, you wait a lot of your life to do something like this," said Francona, who has managed two of these classics. "And in the last two hours, it wasn't a whole lot of fun."
The bang-bang play at the plate -- replays showed that Morneau was clearly safe -- ended a long but memorable day in New York, which pulled out all the stops in saying goodbye to Yankee Stadium. Tuesday's pre-game festivities began with a gathering of Hall of Famers in a downtown hotel, moved through a red-carpet parade up Sixth Avenue, with the Hall of Famers joining the current All-Stars, and finished with a touching on-field ceremony with the former greats joining the current ones at their positions on the Yankee Stadium diamond.
And then the game began. And they played on and on and on.
"It's kind of fitting that it's the last year in this ballpark," said Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler, who combined with Young on a critical double-play in the 10th inning that saved Yankees favorite Mariano Rivera from being the possible loser, "and the thing seems like it lasted forever. The whole night was pretty crazy."
But at least it finally ended.