American Dream, National Nightmare

Alfonso Soriano
In what ends up being a key play with the National League ultimately losing by one run, Nationals outfielder Alfonso Soriano gets tagged out at the plate by the Tigers' Ivan Rodriguez in the third inning. (Keith Srakocic - AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

PITTSBURGH, July 11 -- As the top of the ninth inning played out Tuesday night, with American League runners clogging the bases against one of the top closers of this generation, the precious, inherent balance between exhibition and meaningful game that even now defines baseball's all-star game shifted decidedly towards the latter. The AL, which has owned this game for a decade now, bore down on San Diego Padres stopper Trevor Hoffman, coming suddenly, fiercely to life.

One out away from a defeat that, given the recent historical context, would have felt like Mike Tyson losing to Buster Douglas, three straight AL hitters went single, double, triple against Hoffman.

The last of those, off the bat of the Texas Rangers' Michael Young, brought home two runs and delivered the AL a stunning 3-2 victory in front of 38,904 at PNC Park, extending the league's winning streak in all-star game play to nine straight, excluding a tie in 2002.

The victory means Young's Rangers, Troy Glaus's Toronto Blue Jays, Paul Konerko's Chicago White Sox, or some other pennant-winning AL team, will hold home-field advantage in the World Series -- a not-insignificant edge that, in the past two seasons, was used by the AL champs in winning the Series in four-game sweeps.

"You never know," Konerko said, "when that first loss turns the tides, and the other side wins a bunch in a row. We were on the verge tonight. But we weren't going to be the ones to lose."

It was Konerko's two-out single to left that launched the winning rally against Hoffman in the ninth. It was followed by Glaus's ground-rule double into the left field corner. Then, on an 0-2 fastball, Young smoked a liner into right-center field. When New York Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran took an overly aggressive route toward the ball, it skipped all the way to the wall, allowing both runners to score.

"For us to win this game, with that guy [Hoffman] on the mound," said Rangers outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., "you start to think we might never lose one of these again."

Baseball has perhaps never experienced a major event in such a picturesque setting. Pittsburgh's dazzling PNC Park, which opened in 2001, possesses a view unrivaled by any sporting venue this side of San Francisco. The Allegheny River lies beyond the right field stands, with the stately Roberto Clemente Bridge spanning the water between the stadium and the majestic downtown skyline.

The presence of Clemente, the beloved former Pirates star who died in a plane crash in 1972 at the age of 38, hovered over the proceedings. Many players wore yellow wristbands bearing Clemente's initials, and the game was stopped after the fifth inning so that Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig could present the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award to Clemente, whose widow, Vera, accepted on her late husband's behalf.

In the AL dugout, AL Manager Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox -- among the many Hispanic figures in the game who consider Clemente a hero -- was shown on television wiping away tears.

Perhaps many years from now, it will seem odd that in a season in which legends Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza are all still active -- each of them among the greatest players in history at their positions -- none of them was present Tuesday night.

Instead, this All-Star Game showcased a sturdy crop of youngsters and newcomers, including 25 first-time all-stars.

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