Comeback kid Hamilton not the only All-Star story worth watching
NEW YORK -- Josh Hamilton sat slumped in front of his temporary locker in the back of the home clubhouse in the bowels of Yankee Stadium. The clock was nearing midnight, and around him the room was quickly emptying out, but America's newest hardball hero remained, happily reciting his own Cinderella story (if, that is, Cinderella had one of the prettiest swings the game has ever seen).
Having just electrified the Stadium crowd by launching a record 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby, Hamilton was understandably tired, but he, like so many who had just watched him write the latest chapter in his remarkable comeback story, was amazed too. Told that three of his 28 moon shots had traveled more than 500 feet, Hamilton's eyes grew wide. "Really?" he said. "Holy cow."
Holy cow indeed. Hamilton's fireworks display was by far the biggest story of the night. It threatens to have an unanticipated carryover effect on tonight's All-Star Game, the last at the fabled House That Ruth Built. Billed as an homage to baseball history, the game instead becomes a potential undercard to the ongoing show called What Will Josh Hamilton Do Next? Hamilton, who will bat third and play the same center field once famously manned by Yankees legends Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle (seriously, who is writing this script?), will get at least a couple at-bats to offer an encore performance to his memorable Monday.
Of course, Hamilton won't be the only story worth following on Tuesday night. Here are four more compelling plotlines:
1. AL Domination
The American League has not lost an All-Star Game since 1996, when Hamilton had just finished his freshman year of high school. Ten wins (and one tie) later, the junior circuit shows no signs its winning streak will end this year. During the recently completed interleague play the AL went 149-103, its fifth straight win in the "competition" and the second-largest margin ever. Only one player who will be in uniform for the senior circuit on Tuesday night, Atlanta's Chipper Jones, has been on the victorious side for the NL in an All-Star Game. The rest, despite their impressive regular-season credentials, are a combined 0-for-forever in the Midsummer Classic.
"We know there's a lot of talent in that other clubhouse," said Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer when asked if the AL was getting a little cocky. "But," he said, with an inescapable smile crossing his face, "We like our chances."
2. Pitcher Perfect
American League manager Terry Francona said yesterday that he would "do our best to manipulate and move people around, get as many people in, knowing we need to win this game," but when it comes to deciding who to have on the mound, his job is remarkably easy. Figuring that starter Cliff Lee will go two innings and Yankees icon Mariano Rivera will be on call to preserve a lead in the ninth, Francona must only get 18 outs from a crew that comprises the top five saves leaders in the game: the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez (a pre-break record 38 saves), his own Jonathan Papelbon and Baltimore's George Sherrill (28), Minnesota's Joe Nathan (27) and Kansas City's Joakim Soria (25, tied with San Francisco's Brian Wilson). That list doesn't even include the stellar starters he can use as setup men, a group that includes the majors' ERA leader (Justin Duchscherer of Oakland) and a former Cy Young winner (Roy Halladay of Toronto).
In other words, Francona has at his disposal a litany of pitchers entirely used to chugging out of the bullpen to pitch one inning against three top-notch hitters. Shortening the game usually means getting to the late innings. In this case, the NL had better be in front after three, or it could be over.
3. Jeter's House
When the Yankees move across the street next year to their new ballpark, trucking all their ghosts and monuments and retired jerseys with them, they would be wise to leave room for a few additions in the rapidly approaching future, one for Derek Jeter and the other for Mariano Rivera. The duo, both of whom debuted in 1995 and were the leading figures on New York's four World Series title teams from 1996 to 2000, will be a focal point of fan and media attention before, during and after the game on their home turf.
With all due respect to Rivera and that other Yankees All-Star (Alex Somethingorother), New York has been Jeter territory for more than a decade. Unfortunately for the fans to whom Jeter means so much and who voted him into the starting lineup, his ninth All-Star selection is perhaps his most undeserving. Though the debate about his worthiness will never truly be solved using numbers alone, it's clear that he is having the worst season of his career, with a .284 average, a .345 on-base percentage and a .395 slugging percentage, all of which are career lows and trail the AL's other shortstop, Michael Young of the Rangers, by wide margins.
Yet all of that is sure to be forgotten the first time Jeter strides to the plate in his ballpark. Only two players have won the All-Star MVP award in their home stadium (Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Indians in 1997 and Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox in 1999). With just one other shortstop on the AL roster, Jeter seems likely to play most, if not all, of this game. Jeter, the 2000 All-Star Game and World Series MVP, has made his reputation out of rising to the occasion. Will he do so again?
4. It Counts (Right?)
Hey, have you heard: The winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. Still, for all of Major League Baseball's best efforts to give an exhibition game a faux meaning that it neither needs nor deserves, the first five years of this experiment have yet to provide an adequate payoff for gaining that supposedly sacred advantage. In 2003 the visiting Marlins won Game 6 of the World Series in the very Yankee Stadium where this game will be played, and since then no Series has gone long enough for it to return to the city in which it began in (the Red Sox, in 2004 and '07, and the White Sox in '05 finished sweeps of their overmatched NL foes on the road, while the '06 Cardinals needed just five games to brush past the Tigers).
"We play this game for the championship ring," said NL manager Clint Hurdle on Monday. "This game now gives a team a better opportunity, by winning this game, to win the championship ring. That is the one point I want to make sure that our club is aware of and responsible for as we take the field."
The players may need just such a lesson. Milton Bradley of the Rangers, a first-time All-Star, admitted that in years past, players not involved in the game rarely paid much attention to the supposed importance of what was at stake. "That's so far down the line, you don't even worry about it," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. You care more about it when you're here."