CHICAGO -- Baseball all-star games are about ego. The team with more of it almost always wins. As it did again last night in a 2-0 American League victory in which the meek National League managed one soft single until the last inning.
Even among exceptional athletes, there's a pecking order -- the great stand apart among the merely excellent.
It's no accident who wins, whether the score is 1-0, 6-5 or 7-1. The players who feel, among themselves, that they ought to win -- that they deserve to win -- are usually the ones who fulfill their own prophecy.
These days, the league with more Day-Glo lime green batting gloves, more 900 phone numbers, more self-promoting TV commercials, more scandals, more nicknames like Rocket Roger and The Eck, more 6-foot-10 pitchers, more 20-year-old phenoms, more 240-pound sluggers, more offseason Tina Turner bodyguards, more controversial clubhouse lawyers and much, much more ego is the American League. As Jose Canseco said of himself recently, "I think of myself as a Madonna type personality."
The American League's winning rally Tuesday night was by a typically confident group of stars. Sandy Alomar Jr., born to the cloth and heralded as a future star while still in the minors, opened with a single. Lance Parrish, a 220-pound weightlifter who is a bodyguard for rock queen Tina Turner in the offseason, singled Alomar to third.
After a 78-minute rain delay, Julio Franco stepped to the plate. Franco is among the league leaders in jewelry and, at one time, traveled with an entourage. He has the most outlandish batting stance of this era. Franco looks as if he's coiled, on tiptoes, trying to punch out a ceiling light with his bat pointed as high over his head as he can reach. From this improbable posture, Franco lashed a two-run double to right field off an 0-2 Rob Dibble fastball that nicked an inch of the low-outside corner.
Franco can do this because he is a lost star in a league so awash in second basemen that a .298 career hitter with RBI punch often can be overlooked.
At the moment, the National League is stuck with a bunch of classy guys named Ryne and Andre, Ramon and Shawon that you could easily take home to mother. Only crusty, cranky, cocky Will Clark and Len Dykstra could manage hits for the NL.
This is a dramatic reversal of a quarter-century of baseball history. From 1960 to 1983, the NL held a slight advantage in these affairs: 23-2. The reason was -- call it what you will -- self-esteem, self-confidence, showmanship, extroversion, athletic arrogance or just large, healthy ego. It's not so much that one team lacks it, it's that the other team has a core of key players who have the quality in amazing and contagious abundance.
In the early 1960s, the American League had Mickey Mantle, the rest of the New York Yankees and not too much else. The National League teams dripped with presence: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Ernie Banks, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal.
By the 1970s, the whole cocky Reds gang had arrived -- Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez -- as well as Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Dick Allen.
In contrast, the American League had nice guys or quiet guys or both. Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Frank Howard, Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski. When Frank Robinson changed leagues, he must have wanted to scream.
The National League turned the All-Star Game into an annual humiliation of the humbler circuit. By the '80s, the National League had added big ego guys like Dave Winfield, Gary Carter, Steve Garvey and Mike Schmidt who loved cameras, microphones and notebooks. Even Reggie Jackson couldn't balance the Magnitude-of-Being-Me meter all by himself. The American League kept getting guys named Robin and Cal, Sweet Lou and Easy Eddie. The American League got the loners like Jim Rice and Fred Lynn while the NL got bubbly egotists like Al Oliver, Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker who helped make the clubhouse laugh and crackle.
Slowly, the American League started getting the Right Stuff -- or, at least, the right all-star stuff. The Sons of Reggie started to appear. First, it was Rickey Henderson, who's still a prototype; he complains he's underpaid at $3 million a year. Then Wade Boggs arrived. He was a crabby, controversial, competitive sort with a Pete Rose level of obsessive compulsive drive. When Winfield, then Parker, switched leagues, that helped. Then, the stud hosses started coming in droves.
Look down the AL pitchers for mega-stars and historic personalities. Roger Clemens: the only man to strike out 20 men in one game. Dennis Eckersley: as fine, and dashing, a relief pitcher as has ever lived. Randy Johnson, the tallest player in history and possessor of a 100-mph fastball and, already, a no-hitter. Gregg Olson: perhaps the most heralded kid reliever ever. Bret Saberhagen, the youngest World Series MVP.
Now, look at the players. Boggs has six batting titles and memories of Margo. Cecil Fielder had the gall to tell the Blue Jays to go take a flying leap. He went to Japan, made himself a star and came -- for $3 million -- to prove he was as good as he'd said he was. Cal Ripken thinks he's going to pass Lou Gehrig. Mark McGwire hit 49 homers as a rookie and may end up with 500. George Bell hit 47 homers and thinks highly of himself. Ken Griffey Jr. is a 20-year-old all-star. Kirby Puckett is a cult hero among players and recently was runner-up to Canseco in a Best Player on Earth poll among major-leaguers themselves.
Canseco, of course, is in his own category. In this week's installment of Reggie Redux, he called Will Clark of the Giants "a three-toed sloth with no arms," then said he was just kidding. Jose kids a lot.
The National League has Clark, Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry and maybe a couple of others who command the same awe, curiosity and respect when they walk through a clubhouse. Someday, they may be giants. But most of the ALers already are.
And the junior circuit left Nolan Ryan, Carlton Fisk, Bo (Knows) Jackson, Don Mattingly and George Brett at home. That's a cockiness surplus.
The crowd in Wrigley Field Tuesday night thought it was waiting for the rain to stop.
Actually, it was just waiting for the American League to win for the fourth time in five years.