American League fans can come out of hiding now.
After 20 years of enduring summer humiliations and winter jests, the suffering is o'er. Thanks to the American League's 13-3 victory here in the sport's 50th Anniversary All-Star Game, baseball has two distinctly different but roughly equal leagues once more.
In recent years, baseball's All-Star Game had become more a burden than a pleasure, more a delusion than a showcase, more a bore than a bash.
The National League's victories from 1963 through 1970 were a useful illustration that the older league had, indeed, become baseball's better half. Those wins were a demonstration of the NL's wisdom in opening its doors sooner to black and Latin players who deepened the league's talent while also bringing more daring and power-with-speed to the game. Jackie Robinson was the prototype; Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron the continuing tradition.
However, as the National League's string of victories--19 in 20 years and 11 in a row--extended into the '80s, the All-Star Game lost much of its sheen. Since '75, the AL has produced excellent players like Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Robin Yount, Eddie Murray, Cecil Cooper, Willie Wilson, Rickey Henderson, Buddy Bell, Cal Ripken, Dwight Evans, Lance Parrish and George Brett.
These fellows can play with anybody, on any surface; there's not a sluggish, one-dimensional player in the bunch. In fact, it's been quite a while since the AL had to apologize for either its style or its quality of play. Recent AL powers like the Yankees, Royals and Brewers have been as hard-nosed, as "National League" in their play, as could be desired.
For instance, in the past 11 years, the NL has a 6-5 edge in World Series titles and a 35-33 lead in World Series wins. That's a reasonable measure of the NL's superiority, slight but palpable. However, in that period, the NL won all 11 All-Star games.
Those summer games gave the mistaken impression that the AL was a glorified minor league in which nobody had any speed or fire, where fatsos hung on as DHs and where managers let their brains atrophy and forgot what strategy was.
These criticisms of the AL were based on kernels of truth. It was also true, but usually unnoted, that AL teams had more power than NL teams and were well-suited to the league's old, irregularly shaped grass fields where big-inning baseball could still be played. Fast ball versus curve, basepath patience versus daring, grass finesse versus carpet talent: these were, to a large degree, differences of style rather than measures of basic quality.
The NL was, and probably still is, the better league. A little tougher and more athletic, a bit more modern in its tastes and willingness to experiment.
But not much better. Not superior to the degree the All-Star Game indicated. In recent years, the AL seemed paralyzed, like any team in a bad slump, when it reached the midsummer break; the NL's streak fed on itself.
Baseball can thank St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog that the sport no longer has an eyesore All-Star Game.
No one will ever be able to prove it, but many will long believe, that Herzog was not displeased to find an honest way to help the NL lose here. Before and after the game, he said the AL's win was "good for the game," although he insisted everybody tried hard to win.
The feeling here is that Herzog tried to assemble an NL team that had 1) the best set of midseason statistics possible and 2) the least All-Star experience and, therefore, the least chance of winning.
To put the matter candidly, what sort of NL All-Star team excludes Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Bruce Sutter, Nolan Ryan and Jerry Reuss? Herzog wanted to leave off Fernando Valenzuela. And what sort of All-Star manager uses pitchers named Soto, Hammaker, Dawley, Dravecky, Perez, Orosco and Smith, but neglects to use the best-known and most big-game tested hurlers on his staff, Steve Rogers and Valenzuela?
In any other year, the NL's first two men on the mound would have been Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan, the two veterans who broke Walter Johnson's career strikeout record this spring.
Ryan, although injured for weeks, has a 6-1 record and an invisible ERA; Carlton despite some loses, leads the NL in strikeouts.
Had the NL thrown Carlton, Ryan, Rogers, Valenzuela and Sutter at the AL, would the AL be gloating today about its record 13 runs, its record-tying seven extra-base hits and its Fred Lynn grand slam?
We'll probably never know Herzog's motives unless "the White Rat" writes his "Confessions." Nonetheless, his work here seemed a civil gesture.
For one night, it seemed eminently fair that Brett and Carew were the players sliding for the extra base, while Wilson was making the rolling catch and Lynn was jogging out an historic home run.
"We were horsefeathers," said Herzog. "It was just a good old-fashioned butt-kicking."