No Mere Exhibition, but a Show

Thursday, July 17, 2008; Page E01

I was both foolish enough and fortunate enough to stay with Tuesday night's All-Star Game until the last drop. Foolish because it lasted 4 hours 50 minutes, took 453 pitches and ended at nearly 1:40 Wednesday morning. Fortunate because it was a game of both great consequence and theater, something the NFL and NBA all-star contests simply don't produce.

Very possibly, with the Yankees 5 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, it could also have been the last major event at Yankee Stadium before it's put out to pasture. Perhaps the game needed 15 innings to be resolved since it was a night that had a hundred sidebars, from a Red Sox player, J.D. Drew, winning All-Star Game MVP at Yankee Stadium to American League Manager Terry Francona trying to honor a rival's request not to ruin a young ace's arm before the pennant race between those two teams resumes tonight.

Still, any discussion of the 79th All-Star Game and the American League's 4-3 victory ought to begin with a tip of the cap to Commissioner Bud Selig. There wasn't a lot of love expressed for Selig at the time, when MLB decided to award World Series home-field advantage to the winner of the all-star game. Who would do such a thing?

It might not have come about without that infamous 7-7 tie in Milwaukee in 2002. It happened in Selig's town with him sitting right there and it was a complete embarrassment. The crowd chanted "Let them play! Let them play!" Selig actually apologized for the outcome and the all-star game never seemed more inconsequential.

But very quickly Selig or his minions came up with something that would make the game as competitive as ever, a little prize called home-field advantage in the Fall Classic. There was tangible evidence of it yesterday morning. The moment the AL scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly, Carlos Quentin of the White Sox was hugging Justin Morneau of the Twins. The White Sox and Twins plain don't like each other. Chicago leads Minnesota by 1 1/2 games in the AL Central. You know why Quentin and Morneau were hugging each other? Because each guy feels his team can reach the World Series and have home-field advantage. Same goes for Derek Jeter of the Yankees and Dioner Navarro of the Tampa Bay Rays, two of the three squads fighting it out in the AL East.

Most of the long faces in the National League dugout belonged to Lou Piniella and the eight Chicago Cubs, the team with the most home wins in baseball, hoping for any edge they might get in October. If you're going to have this game, create some stakes. If players can't be seduced by a free trip to Hawaii, as is the case with the NFL's Pro Bowl, you know the game itself is worthless. And while most NBA players want to be involved in all-star weekend, they've usually partied themselves to fatigue by the time the game starts.

This All-Star Game wasn't just played, it was seriously contested. There were successful sacrifice attempts, stolen bases, tight plays at the plate, tough managerial decisions, even umpire errors. The only thing missing was the managers didn't come out and raise hell like they normally would. But there was no mistaking Jeter standing on that top dugout step, peering over the railing for the entire five hours, rooting for the AL as if it were a deciding game in the World Series.

Okay, a few guys left the premises early. One of them was Alex Rodriguez. Most of the criticism directed at A-Rod is of the petty or salacious variety, what strip club he's exiting or some silliness mostly only the New York tabloids care about. And I suppose leaving an all-star game early, which amounts to an excused absence, isn't the most egregious mistake in the world.

But A-Rod, who has been in New York long enough to know his profile and his contract bring extra scrutiny, has to know everything he does publicly has consequences. For a guy who cares about his image so much, this was just another unnecessary misstep. Does it tell us about the difference between the two that A-Rod left the stadium in the town where he lives while Jeter stayed until the very last pitch, cheering on his teammates for a night?

Most of the fans probably didn't notice A-Rod wasn't in the dugout because they were too busy booing Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox closer who didn't like being booed in New York the day after he said he deserved to close the game as much as Yankees god Mariano Rivera. Talk about being seriously misguided. Thankfully, his manager Tuesday night and every night, Francona, has a ton more perspective.

I'm still stunned when young players reveal their own self-absorption, then get angry at reporters or fans for calling them on it. Papelbon thought what, that he was going to be cheered at Yankee Stadium? You don't want your wife to be booed in New York? Don't bring her. What Red Sox player wouldn't know the consequences of showing up in a Red Sox uniform in New York, no matter the circumstances?

The Red Sox could be the luckiest team in the league, to have Francona as manager. The Rays, trailing Francona's Sox by a half-game in the AL East, had asked that Scott Kazmir, their young ace who spent a recent stretch on the disabled list, not be used if at all possible. Francona used Kazmir only when he had not a single player left in the dugout or bullpen, and tight shots of Francona showed how concerned he was not just about honoring the request, but about the kid's arm. Thankfully, the AL won the game in the bottom of the 15th and Kazmir didn't have to throw another pitch. Francona always seems to make the right call at the right time, and always without calling any attention to himself.

The attention, rightfully so, went to baseball's greatest legends and the most legendary sports cathedral in the United States for the first, oh, two or three hours of the night. A pretty compelling baseball game followed.

The American League representative, come mid-October, can thank Michael Young for hitting the game-winning sacrifice fly, and folks who prefer baseball as it's meant to be played instead of some lifeless exhibition can thank not just the all-stars, but the commissioner who set it all up to actually matter.

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