Seldom, if ever has baseball's All-Star Game shaped up as such a potentially embarrassing mismatch.
The injured, little-known and generally reviled American League squad slouched into Yankee Stadium today in preparation for its annual chastisement.
"Every year it seems like they grind us into the dust," admitted AL starter Jim Palmer; who will face Don Sutton in Tuesday's 48th summer classic here 8:30 p.m., WRC-TV-4). "It's not an enviable position. We'll do the best we can and try to get back to parity."
Indeed, the American League, which has won this game once in the last 14 years, seems far from parity.
Into the teeth of what NL manager Sparky Anderson cells, "Our best overall (NL) team in at least 10 years," the desperate junior circuit sends the likes of Ruppert Jones, Wayne Grosa, Jason Thompson, Jim Kern, Jim Slaton, Dave La Roche, Butch Wynegar, Dennis Eckersley and aged Ron Fairly.
These gentlemen are as humble in deed as they are in reputation. The AL has eight batters hitting 281 or less, two pitchers with losing records, two others with ERAs over 3.30, and six players (four of them starters) who have fewer homers combined than the NL's cleanup man, George Foster.
If any All-Star team has ever had a less-distinguished pitching staff then these ALers, no one can recall it.
Legitimate arm problems have sidelined Mark Fidrych and Frank Tanana, the league's two young phenoms. Nolan Ryan, the most feared fastbatter in the game, is back home in Laguna Beach with a bruised ego. And Vida Blue has one of those "three-day-vacation" sure elbows that will surely clear up for his next pitching turn.
"Of the original starters (picked for the game), it looks like I'm the only one left," grinned Palmer. "Maybe I'm pitching by default."
Palmer has more Cy Young Awards and 20-win seasons (six) than the other six AL pitchers combined. In fact, manager Billy Martin, who offened Ryan by not picking him among his original eight, probably wishes he had his own troublesome New York Yankee staff to choose from. The Yanks' top seven pitchers have 302 more career victories than the AL staff. (Sparky Lyle is in both groups.)
Martin was speaking considerable truth when he said today, "I couldn't pick all Yankees for the team."
Even mired in third place and feuding as the Yanks are, Steinbrenner's all-stars are almost unquestionaly a match for the ALers who aren't on crutches.
"I'm here to give the hospital report," quipped AL president Lee McPhail today, adding Thurman Munson, who is only available to pinch-hit, to the injured list. Richie Zisk's ankle hurts, as does Rod Carew's back. Fred Lynn looks emaciated from these 100-degree days and is afraid to step on the scale. But Lynn may have to start in center field if Carl Yastrzemski's swollen instep is no better by game time. The AL doesn't even have a backup second baseman.
By contrast, the NL is so loaded that Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey (.331) and Ted Simmons (.332) are on the bench while two-time batting champ Bill Madlock and Jeff Burroughs ( 22 homers) couldn't make the team.
While much-needed ALers like Blue and Ryan stay home, the guys in the other league fight for the honor.
Schmidt says he'd love to play an inning of defense ven though a hairline finger fracture should keep him from batting.
Philadelphia's Larry Bowa is furious about not making the 28-man squad, while starter Sutton is as overjoyed as a kid with his assignment.
"I've been dreaming about starting an All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium," bubbled the 10-4 righthander who is accused of throwing the exotic "sandpaper ball."
"This'll be more exciting than the World Series. That's work. This is fun," said Sutton. "I knew I was going to start when Sparky (Anderson) called to ask me what grain of sandpaper I wanted and what size carpenter's apron . . .
"I told him I'd take 70-grain Black & Decker sandpaper and a 10-inch wood rasp, hammer and chisel."
While Anderson put an indirect rap on the laggard American Leaguers who aren't here - "Anyone who is asked to play and doesn't . . . to me that's a disgrace" - even the AL manager, Martin, was showing up late for a press conference.
"Billy, Billy, I knew you'd show." needled Anderson, as Martin approached in movie-star sunglasses that he never removed.
Both managers arrived here almost at wit's end over the struggles of their own teams but, true to character, Anderson is weathering defeat more gracefully. "Our pitching is just a disaster," Anderson, summing up the Cincinnati problems for his ex-coach, Alex Grammas. "I bring in a guy and he walks two, hits one and then gives up a grand slam. This is the major leagues?"
Martin, however, is clammed up on the state of the Yanks, refusing to discuss the latest tiff (Lyle chewing out Reggie Jackson for loafing, if you must know).
The NL even got the better of the afternoon workouts. The AL's batting-practice pitcher, one Tony Ferrara, sneaked up a few feet in front of the rubber and, in a sort of Walter Mitty fantasy, practically shut out the All-Stars. The likes of Jackson and Jim Rice couldn't get out of the cage fast enough against his sinkers.
While the Nationals ignored the AL's BP, the Americans stayed to watch their opponents play long ball. Larry Hisle, AL RBI leader, even brought a camera.
The least-awed American Leaguer was, fittingly, Palmer, who pitched eight shutout innings in three All-Star Games, holding the NL to a .115 batting average. "I'd hate to face these guys with one day's rest," he said. "But I've had five days off. I should be fresh."
A customarily strong Palmer, plus sure-to-be-used star relievers Bill Campbell and Lyle, give the AL its best chance of making a more respectable showing than it managed in its last five straight defeats, in which the total score was 31-10. Martin plans to trust Eckersley with the middle innings, while Tom Seaver, in his return to New York, will be Anderson's second man.
All here agree that this All-Star Game needs a staunch American League showing. Already, New York Times columnist Red Smith has suggested that in the light of the game's competitive imbalance, its stupid selecting process and its general atmosphere of "thundering boredom," few would morn if the "classic" died."
That may be exaggerated. After all, where but at the All-Star Game can Pete Rose teach his 6-year-old son, Pete Jr., how to play Yankee Stadium's notorious left field. "The kid's gotta learn how to play the sun field sometime," explained Rose.