We knew, headed into Tuesday night, that the All-Star Game in Minneapolis would be Derek Jeter’s last appearance on such a stage. The ovations and hat-tips were predictable, appropriate, emotional.
We knew, too, that the winning league of the All-Star Game would take home-field advantage into the World Series, an occasion a full three months from now that will involve more players who spent Tuesday fishing and playing golf. The fairness of such ramifications have been and will be debated, but for the purposes of this discussion, there’s no escaping them. They just are.
Who knew, though, that the confluence of those two certainties – by any measure, the central themes of the 2014 midsummer classic – would be controversy?
If the Nationals or the Dodgers or the Cardinals – for goodness sake, the Cardinals – win the National League pennant, they will open the World Series in Baltimore or Oakland or Detroit, or whatever city is fortunate enough to take the American League title. And there’s little escaping that they will do so, at least in part, because St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright decided Jeter deserved a final send-off befitting his 20-year career, simultaneously glamorous and workmanlike.
“I was gonna give him a couple of pipe shots,” Wainwright said during a mid-game interview. “He deserved it.”
He later recanted. Or rephrased. Or something.
“What I meant to say was: I’m intentionally trying to throw a strike to get him out,” Wainwright said in postgame comments to reporters. “It’s what I do most of the time, almost all the time. ‘Piping’ one is the wrong window for that. It really is. If I’m going to get taken to the slaughterhouse for saying a stupid phrase, then I deserve it. What can you do?”
Hmmmm. Well, several things.
First, while it’s now officially open season on the appropriateness of the reward for winning the all-star game, there is no debating that every player and manager involved in Tuesday’s contest understood what the outcome would mean. As Thomas Boswell pointed out in his column in Tuesday’s Post, the winning league in the all-star game has produced the winner of the World Series eight of the 11 times this format has been used, including the last five. That’s serious – and perhaps silly – stuff, particularly for something that is as much exhibition and celebration as it is competition.
But the merits of the system – born of the 7-7 tie at the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee that produced Bud Selig’s infamous what-do-I-do-now, shrugged shoulders photo – can be discussed in the offseason. What’s not debatable is that Wainwright, the ace of the defending NL champs who now sit a game back in the NL Central and a half-game back in the wild-card race, knew what his start meant to his league, certainly, but potentially his team, too.
And here it went. Jeter poked Wainwright’s second pitch to right, a hard double.
“I didn’t know he was going to hit a double, or I would have changed my mind on that,” Wainwright said. “I thought he was going to hit something hard to the right side for a single or an out. I probably should have pitched him a little bit better.”
Jeter, whose next public misstep will be his first, expressed surprise that Wainwright had – at least initially – said he teed one up.
“If he grooved it, thank you,” Jeter told reporters. “You still have to hit it.”
For most of the season, that has been exceedingly hard against Wainwright. In his previous four starts for the Cardinals, Wainwright had given up a total of three runs. In 19 first innings this year, he had allowed four extra-base hits and four earned runs, and opponents were hitting .189 against him.
Yet Jeter’s double sparked a three-run first for the AL. Mike Trout, the game’s MVP and perhaps the best player in the sport, followed with a run-scoring triple. An out later, Miguel Cabrera hit a two-run homer.
Boom! A July exhibition with October implications.
The AL might have won Tuesday night even without Jeter’s leadoff double. It’s possible that Wainwright was, in fact, just trying to throw Jeter a good, solid strike because he suspected – with the count 1-0 – that Jeter would take a pitch. It’s probable that the current all-star rules are stupid and due for a change.
But everybody at Target Field knew Tuesday night was about two things: Derek Jeter, who for 20 years has given nothing but a good, honest effort, and the World Series, which now will have a team hosting Game 1 that gained the advantage because of what was a well-intentioned, but certainly questionable, effort.
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