If it weren't for the last 20 years, Tuesday night's All-Star Game here would be a baseball event of a high order.
On display in this 53rd classic--the first ever played outside the United States--are two undeniably excellent teams, both unusually well motivated.
For starters, the National League's scholarly Steve Rogers (2.13 ERA) of host Montreal will face the American League's punk-rock punch-out artist Dennis Eckersley of Boston.
Next, Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin, two managers who haven't loved each other for years, are making no bones about playing this one for keeps.
"You got two Italian managers. One's high class, the other's low class. Figure out which is which," said AL Manager Martin of Oakland, perhaps posing a more difficult puzzler than he'd intended. Asked if he planned to hug his players the way Los Angeles Manager Lasorda does his, Martin said, "I think I'll probably slap mine."
'Twould be hard to collect two better lineups.
The American League's leadoff man will be Rickey Henderson of Oakland, who at 23 bids fair to go down in history as both the best base stealer ever and perhaps the most exciting defensive left fielder. Behind him are three consecutive MVPs--Fred Lynn, George Brett and Reggie Jackson--followed by a pair of Milwaukee's best Wallbangers--Cecil Cooper and Cooperstown-bound Robin Yount. In conclusion, the team has stylish pros Bobby Grich and Carlton Fisk. A very classy starting act.
And the bench ain't bad. In all, the AL has 14 players with 10 or more home runs and eight players who are on a 30-homer pace. The entire team's slugging average is .503. Only five of 20 NL everyday players have slugging marks that high.
As for the National League, what ever needs to be said about this bunch when it's All-Star time? The American League has great baseball players, but the National League has great athletes. Everywhere you look are exactly the sort of fast, strong, multitalented types that are synonymous with the phrase "National League ball."
Leadoff man Tim Raines, quietly headed for 80 steals, is called "Rock" because he's as hard and tough as one. Next comes NL captain Pete Rose, the original hard guy. Follow them with the two quintessential NL jocks, Andre (Hawk) Dawson and Mike Schmidt, who may combine speed, power and natural grace better than any other two players in the game.
Next come Gary Carter, the best defensive and best offensive catcher in baseball, and Atlanta's Dale Murphy (23 homers, 62 RBI), who at 26 looks like a 400-homer man to be. Tack on the superslick Venezuelan double play combination of Dave Concepcion and Manny Trillo and you've got dynamite.
For extra spice, this game is being played in a civilized city that is a delightful shock to unprepared Americans. Montreal has 200-square-foot stained glass windows in its immaculate subway stations. And, for today's free workouts, Olympic Stadium was almost half full; every player was given huge ovations.
Yet, having said all this, it must be added that the All-Star Game has one huge problem. Of all the so-called "major" events in sports, its result may come closest to being a foregone conclusion. And nothing is more anathema to sport than a sense that the outcome is already known.
Since July 30, 1962, the American League has won one All-Star Game in 19--and that was 11 years ago. The 10 consecutive AL losses since 1971 have served to deaden the game's appeal. The pattern seems set in stone. When the game is set in NL cities, it is no contest with never-in-doubt scores like 7-3, 7-2, 7-1, 7-1 sounding like a broken record. In AL parks, the perennial losers tend to give themselves pep talks and lose more competitively--6-3, 7-5, 7-6, 5-4. Even if the AL is leading entering the eighth--as it has in '79 and '81--a sort of paralysis sets in and the National League wins with something that blends arrogance, inevitability and just a bit of luck.
Of course, many semisensible explanations have been developed for this state of affairs, all of them containing a grain of truth and all of them losing their novelty as the years wear on.
At first, the NL won because it broke the color line faster and better, nearly cornering the market on the Mays-Aaron-Clemente-Frank Robinson generation of stars.
Then, it was speculated that the NL was deeper in quality players and always got the edge in the vital late innings as massive substitutions left the AL worse off. Schmidt likes this one and reiterated it today.
"I think of the All-Star Game as power against power, and I think the National League is more a power league, with lots of fast ball pitchers and fast ball hitters," said AL reliever Dan Quisenberry. In one game, the only way to fight fire may be with fire.
Finally, the NL, like many winning entities, has begun to take to itself certain airs about superior "character." "We always have a lot of chatter and enthusiasm, old-college-try stuff," 15-time NL All-Star Rose said today. "I don't know if that's how it is in their (AL) dugout or not. Never been in there . . . never particularly want to be. I'm a National Leaguer."
Al Oliver, current NL leading hitter, has been in both--three times as a National star, then the past two years with the American as a Texas Ranger, and now again with the NL.
"Even in Texas, I thought of myself as a National Leaguer who just happened to be playing in the American League," said Oliver, perfectly providing the confident/overbearing (take your pick) tone of voice typical of NLers. "The NL dugout has more zest to it in an All-Star Game. The AL has more laid-back, mellow players. The NL is always kind of psyched, a little like a football team. Lots of adrenaline.
"Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of aggressive players in the AL--teams like Oakland, Kansas City and the Brewers will really come after you. But the league as a whole wasn't as aggressive.
"I'll say one thing. I thought it was tougher to hit in the American League. You never know what's coming on any count," Oliver went on. "That may be why the AL holds its own in the World Series. Over a seven-game series, their (off-speed) pitching can put good fast ball hitters in a slump.
"If nothin' else, the American League has got the right manager now--Martin. He'll fire 'em up."
At any rate, he's trying. Even Lasorda said, "Billy knows we're overstocked with right-handed hitters, so he's loaded up with (six of eight) right-handers. Hey, he's sharp. Billy Martin didn't go to school to eat his lunch."
Martin was offered the managing spot after Bob Lemon of the Yankees was fired. "I know how he feels," said Martin. "I've only managed the All-Star team once . . . got fired too many times."
Martin would have the world believe that the AL has just been asleep for the past 19 summers, yawning its way through all those embarrassments. "We've started taking it seriously the last couple of years," said Martin, adding that it was the press, and the press alone, that had built up importance around an essentially meaningless game.
"For years, the American League never thought about the All-Star Game. Casey Stengel used to ask us (Yankees), 'Who wants to go? Mantle? Berra? How about you, Maris?' And nobody wanted to go. We'd all say, 'You gotta go this year 'cause McDougald had to go last year.' "
What Martin forgets is that the American was as sure of its superiority then as the National is now. That mood, so hard to reverse, was on display again today.
AL catcher Fisk got up at a press conference and talked about how winning wasn't the most important thing at the All-Star Game, but rather the honor of being selected.
Rose got up and said two words.
"Losing stinks," is the printable version.
It summarized the National League point of view nicely.