So good, so young
Record number of rookies selected to All-Star Game
SEATTLE (TICKER) -- There have been 71 All-Star Games and none has featured more rookies than Tuesday's contest at Safeco Field.
Credit internet voting, rotisserie baseball or a heightened awareness of the minor leagues, but Ben Sheets, Albert Pujols, Jimmy Rollins and Japanese sensation Ichiro Suzuki make up the only quartet of rookies ever to compete in the same All-Star Game.
Each of the four took a different route to the All-Star Game in his initial season. Sheets stars in the role of American hero, Pujols is the American dream, Rollins the All-American and Suzuki, well, he's not even from this country.
Sheets has emerged as the ace for which the Milwaukee Brewers have so desperately longed, surpassing even the most lofty expectations. The likeable right-hander, who turns 23 next week, is 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA in 16 starts.
The only Brewer at the All-Star Game, Sheets is used to the spotlight, having sent Milwaukee fans a calling card by leading the United States to the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. No, Sheets didn't just lead the team to the gold medal, he throttled Cuba to capture top honors.
And in three months with the big club, he has been better than advertised. He leads all rookies in wins and is second in ERA, innings pitched (100 1/3) and strikeouts (60). He was selected by National League manager Bobby Valentine and is a near-lock to pitch on Tuesday.
"It's exciting, it's fun to look around," Sheets said. "You get big-eyed, but you don't want to be too much in awe. I got to try and get these guys out the rest of the year. But when you are in the same room with these guys, it is something you will want to talk about later in life."
Sheets has an effusive spirit for the game but took a moment Monday to reflect on his first-half accomplishments.
"I didn't imagine it this early," he admitted. "Probably later in my career, but I began sensing (in June) that there might be an opportunity. Then I got a couple of wins under my belt. I'm glad it happened, it's pretty neat."
Sheets' ability is not lost on one of his fellow rookies.
"He's something special, he's tough," Pujols said. "He's going to be a tough one. He's got great command and good stuff. He is not afraid of anything out there."
While Sheets is the first rookie starting pitcher to make the squad since Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, Pujols is the first member of the St. Louis Cardinals to make the All-Star team as a rookie in 46 years.
The 21-year-old Pujols spent most of last season in the Class A Midwest League and was a long shot to make the majors this spring. But an outstanding March carried into April, then May. Just when it seemed pitchers might figure him out, Pujols hit .330 with five homers and 15 RBI in June.
Pujols has played infield and outfield on a Cardinals team that has a solid mix of talented veterans and emerging stars. He is joined on the All-Star team by one of those rising stars, righthander Matt Morris, and could have made the trip to Seattle with another teammate, outfielder J.D. Drew, who is out with an injury.
"I try to learn from my teammates and as a rookie, part of my job is to pick up the best things I can from them," Pujols said. "I'm not concerned about Rookie or the Year or anything like that, just having the opportunity to help my team win."
Pujols was in the Class A All-Star Game 12 months ago but was able to put that experience in perspective.
"I was in that game, but I'm sure it will be nothing compared to this one. I was watching the big league game last year and in my head I thought about being here," he said. "You're talking about the All-Star Game. The best players in the world are here, and so am I."
While Pujols has burst on the scene to give the Cardinals a lift, none of the National League players has been more vital to the success of his team than Rollins, who star at shortstop for the first-place Philadelphia Phillies.
Rollins is the first Phillies' All-Star at shortstop since his manager, Larry Bowa, made the team in 1979. The multi-dimensional 22-year-old has helped erase memories of Steve Jeltz, Kim Batiste and Desi Relaford.
After tantalizing Phillies' fans in a brief stint last year, Rollins has used a combination of athleticism and enthusiasm to help Philadelphia undergo a startling transformation. He leads the NL with 28 stolen bases and is 10th with 31 multi-hit games.
Of all the rookies, he appeared the most excited about being selected and shared the moment with the media.
"My agent called at like 9 o'clock in the morning on the Fourth of July and when he told me I couldn't stop laughing," Rollins said. "He was laughing, I was laughing, we didn't talk for like five minutes. There was pretty much nothing I could say. We were cracking up. It was just great news."
While all three NL first-year players have stories to tell, it was Suzuki, the starting American League right fielder in Tuesday's game, who was the focus of nearly every camera and microphone on media day. The Seattle Mariners' leadoff hitter is the toast of the town and the poster boy for the "Midsummer Classic."
The leading vote-getter, Suzuki is the first rookie outfielder to start in the All-Star Game since Tony Oliva of the Minnesota Twins in 1964. The first Japanese-born position player to compete in the major leagues, Suzuki is among the AL leaders in hitting, runs, hits, triples, total bases and stolen bases.
"I didn't expect this," Suzuki said through an interpreter. "I couldn't imagine that I would get that many votes. But because it's my first year and the game is in Seattle, it means a lot. Seattle has become my special town."
"I wish I could speak Japanese so that he could tell me how to hit," Pujols joked. "I have never seen anything like him. He can do it all. Look what he has done so far."
The attitudes of the rookies have caught the eye of a pair of future Hall of Famers -- Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken.
"To see a guy like Jimmy Rollins jumping around, thrilled to death to be here, he's very confident and believes in himself," Gwynn said. "You see these guys that walk in here and they can't believe they are here."
"You see how good these guys are that are just starting out, realize how good they are and just let them know that they have to continue to work," Ripken added.
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