Every summer, baseball loves to pretend that its world is perfect when the All-Star Game arrives. But it's usually a fib and, for a sport that endured major problems for nearly a quarter century, sometimes a spectacular lie.
This time, however, it finally approximates the truth. This summer, the all-star atmosphere is as cleansed and bright as any time since the Strike of '81 sent the game into a vortex of mismanagement that lasted 20 years. How blue is the sky here as the All-Star Game arrives on Tuesday? Why even Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza are now a battery, not an assault and battery.
Just two years ago, when this Classic ended in an egregious comical tie, such an idyllic midseason hiatus for baseball would have seemed like a cruel joke. That episode, with Commissioner Bud Selig at the center of the farce, seemed to symbolize an entire dysfunctional industry. As rain gushed through a huge leak in the roof of brand-new Miller Park in Milwaukee, the hurricane prospect of another labor stoppage hung over the game. The sport had become an all-purpose nightmare.
Though few guessed it, that was the bottom for baseball. The '02 all-star mortification was a glimpse into the abyss of second-class sports citizenship for everybody in the game. Within weeks, in a preposterous example of "it's always darkest . . . ," the sport reached a labor agreement, began to share significant revenues among teams and instituted a (meek) drug-testing program. As if a generation-long curse had lifted, everything in every corner of the sport suddenly began to fall into place.
Yes, one dark cloud certainly remains. Eventually the BALCO trial will, or will not, finger some famous sluggers, including Barry Bonds, as steroid users. But the baseball public has already digested that possibility. And it appears to have rendered a broader verdict on the sport. The game's attendance is up 12 percent this year and will probably break the all-time record. The average (now 29,952) may crack 30,000 per game.
At this all-star break, 19 teams are within 41/2 games of making the playoffs. Thanks to revenue sharing ($300 million in '05) and "Moneyball" theories, more teams are competitive. "The Yankees are still the Yankees. You still have the polarity, the disparity," Reds veteran Barry Larkin said Monday. "But teams as a whole are getting better. You'll always have differences between markets. But more teams are realizing that the key is spending wisely."
On top of the blessings of semi-parity, baseball is flush with veteran legends who have, or soon will, win 300 games or hit 500 homers. If Ken Griffey Jr. hadn't gotten hurt Saturday, the NL outfield would have had three 500-homer men. Nonetheless, the game's younger stars, many of them from the Dominican Republic, which has 10 players here, are every bit as stellar.
"For the people of the Dominican, this game will be like a walk through heaven," said the Red Sox' David Ortiz, from Santo Domingo. Then he lists the other Dominican sluggers here: Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada. "They are all sick," he said. "That's a lot of hitting there, man."
Appropriately, the Orioles' Tejada gave the Dominican contingent its first walk through heaven by winning the Home Run Derby on Monday night with the highest total in the event's history (27) and the highest total in one round (15).
These days, you never know the depths of talent that a 5-foot-9, 209-pound dynamo like Tejada may reveal. "The talent in our game just keeps getting better," said AL Manager Joe Torre. "As a manager, you marvel. You see a player like Vladimir Guerrero and you shake your head. You think you've seen it all. And then they do something else."
After watching the Diamondbacks, Angels and Marlins win the last three World Series, fans know they need to follow the summer's multitude of story lines. It's a reloaded matrix of possibility. The Red Sox and Cubs, who left the nation in shock last fall, and millions in tears, may return this October to resume their legendary quixotic quests. The Yankees are supreme in payroll and record but conspicuously flawed, just like their last three unsatisfying seasons. Venerable St. Louis is the season's surprise powerhouse, while several franchises once thought hopeless now seem resurrected.
Who thought that Texas could trade Alex Rodriguez and lose Rafael Palmeiro, yet rise to first place with the top-ranked offense in baseball led by Soriano, shortstop Michael Young and Hank Blalock? Who thought the Devil Rays could win a dozen games in a row and have Torre raving about the future stardom of Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli? Who thought Bud's Brewers could develop young talent?
Underpinning every positive trend is the Camden Yards phenomenon. Since Orioles Park opened, 15 more teams have built new, usually retro-styled parks. This season, the Phillies and Padres have had their grand openings. The ballpark-as-total-experience trend has engulfed the game. Numerous other parks have had huge facelifts. And the classics, from Fenway Park and Wrigley Field to Yankee Stadium and Chavez Ravine, still anchor the game.
These days, baseball's astonishments, like a perfect game from 40-year-old Randy Johnson, or Derek Jeter turning the box-seat face-plant into the film highlight of the season, never seem to stop. Even an adorable 74-year-old is managing the NL team. "I'm so old," said Jack McKeon, "that I remember Preparation A."
What's most amazing, however, is how recently all this seemed impossible. Two years ago, baseball's agenda of almost insoluble problems looked like a chain-reaction car crash. Now, the game is so bereft of tough issues that its most pressing problem after this all-star break is to decide where to relocate the Montreal team. Yes, the Expos are at the top of the to-do list.
And everybody here knows it. The farther you get from Washington, the less influence Orioles owner Peter Angelos seems to have in baseball circles and the more people seem to take it for granted that the Expos are probably headed to the Washington area. For example, Piazza was grilled on Monday about catching Clemens, the man who beaned him in '00 then, in the World Series, threw his own shattered bat at him. The Met brushed aside that conflict, then jumped on an unexpected soapbox.
"I really hope the Expos move to Washington. I feel a little bad for Mr. Angelos. But I was in Washington and it's just a huge city and a great city. And it's an hour from Baltimore. It's time to bring the national pastime back to the nation's capital," said Piazza. "I've heard that a team in Washington would hurt the Orioles. But it would also add another rivalry like the Yankees and us. D.C. is worthy of a team. There's a lot of politics involved, but it's definitely time to move the Expos to Washington."
See, this All-Star Game is perfect.