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Somewhere along the way—after the best-selling books, the many statistical innovations such as runs created and game scores, the countless people, many of whom populate today's front offices, that he inspired to see baseball differently—James became a cliché to many people. They chose to see him as a joyless baseball accountant who cared more for numbers than the game. This is a million miles from the truth. He says it used to bother him more.
Now we watch Detroit's Justin Verlander pitch. This might be the most thrilling show in baseball in 2011. Verlander throws his fastball 100 mph, he throws breaking balls that seem to skid in midair, and he throws them for all strikes. Three talents, and yet even Bill James has trouble coming up with many other pitchers who possessed that arsenal. Sandy Koufax comes to mind first. We talk a bit about Koufax ... and Walter Johnson ... and Roger Clemens. This is something about baseball. You don't need a 3,000th hit to think about history. It's always there, even on a 109° day in Kansas City when you're watching Justin Verlander overpower a last-place Royals team.
In the fifth inning, with a man on third, Verlander faces a genial catcher named Brayan Peña. In 1999, Peña was 17 and a member of the Cuban national team. One day he walked into a bathroom in Caracas, climbed through a window, jumped into a car and defected from Cuba. Peña plays baseball with the joy of a man who is living a life beyond his dreams. Verlander sweats and kicks at the dirt.
"Who is the most fun player at every position?" Bill asks suddenly. He pulls out a notepad and writes down the positions. We come up with names. Sheffield (for his homicidal swing) and Clemente in the outfield. Bench behind the plate. Verlander throws Peña a 97-mph heater for a ball. Ozzie Smith was great fun to watch at shortstop, obviously. Remember the time he dived for a ball and then, after a bad hop, grabbed it barehanded? Bo Jackson was electrifying. Peña fouls off a curveball. Andruw Jones was amazing in his prime; he played such a shallow centerfield. Ichiro has always been fun with the way he seems halfway to first base by the time he finishes his swing. I always loved watching Greg Maddux pitch. Bill enjoyed a lefthander named Danny Jackson. Peña watches a 98-mph fastball catch the corner for strike two.
"It really is a matter of personal preference, isn't it?" Bill says. And at that moment, Verlander unleashes an 83-mph pitch that defies description. They would call it a slider on the radio, but we both thought it bent more than any slider either of us had seen before. And yet it did not break like a curveball. It looked like the ball changed lanes at the last second, a tourist trying not to miss his exit. Peña swung, sort of, but he missed the ball by something like three feet. You know how sometimes the sound and picture of movies get out of sync? Peña's swing was like that—not just late and wide, but askew somehow, as if it didn't quite fit the scene.
Bill and I stopped what we were doing. And then, at the same time, we both just began to laugh.
Baseball's biggest problems, like those of us with thinning hair, seem to happen whenever it tries to act young. The All-Star Game in Phoenix feels to me like a three-day comb-over. Look, the All-Star Game will never be what it was. It thrived in a time when America's sports landscape wasn't crowded, long before the Internet and chat boards and channel 1,904, long before you could watch almost every baseball game on your iPad. It used to be exotic—and rare—for most of us to see the best players. It used to be that American Leaguers and National Leaguers would face each other only at the All-Star Game and in the World Series. Then came free agency and interleague play.
Progress leaves behind casualties. The efforts to keep the All-Star Game vibrant and cool—such as the interminable Home Run Derby, the baffling player-selection process and giving home field advantage in the World Series to the winning league—make baseball look as if it's wearing black socks with sandals and saying "dude" a lot. Many of the game's most popular players, including Jeter himself, were not at the game this year. And fewer people watch it on television than ever before.
There are undeniably marvelous moments over All-Star Game weekend. Toronto's Jose Bautista makes a wonderful sliding catch. Prince Fielder hits an opposite-field home run that wins him the MVP award. Brian Wilson's beard comes in to get the save for the National League. But all of it feels manufactured. Even the sellout crowd in Arizona—All-Star Games still sell out and undeniably still create buzz in American cities—seems uncertain about who to cheer and what's the point. As I walk back with the crowd through the stifling Phoenix heat, I hear a young couple talking.
He says, "Well, that was pretty fun, right?"