MIAMI — It was the first All-Star Game held in baseball’s southernmost market, so there were samba bands in the concourses, an aquarium behind home plate and, despite the soupy, swampy air outside, a comfy, air-conditioned atmosphere within Marlins Park, Miami’s retractable-roofed, art deco baseball palace in the heart of Little Havana.
It was the first All-Star Game for Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees’ towering rookie right fielder and budding cultural phenomenon, as well as the newly crowned Home Run Derby champ, so there were television cameras looking up his nostrils as he took batting practice Tuesday, and a palpable buzz as he strode to the plate in the bottom of the first inning to face Washington Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer.
And it was the first All-Star Game in 15 years that did not come with home-field advantage in the World Series attached to its outcome, so the American League’s 2-1 victory, secured when Seattle’s Robinson Cano homered leading off the top of the 10th against Chicago Cubs closer Wade Davis, brought nothing more than bragging rights. The pennant-winners will once again be on their own, their regular season record the only criterion, when Game 1 finds them either in home whites or road grays some 14 weeks from now.
“The goal was to have some fun and compete,” Judge said, “and that’s what happened.”
A baseball season full of juggernaut teams, youthful star power and the most prolific home run rate in the game’s history paused Tuesday night for the purest of exhibitions, 32 National League all-stars against 32 from the American League. This time, to turn the old slogan around, it didn’t count whatsoever.
How awkward, then, that a game deprived of tangible meaning would wind up going to extra innings, tied 1-1, with both teams’ bullpens dwindling to a precious few arms. It was a similar scenario, the 2002 game in Milwaukee ending in an 11-inning tie when both teams ran out of pitchers, that led then-commissioner Bud Selig to put in the World Series tie-in the following year.
But thanks to Cano, who yanked a 1-1 curveball from Davis over the wall in right, disaster and embarrassment were averted. Davis, the only representative from the team that won the World Series in 2016 (and who wasn’t even on that team, having signed with the Cubs this offseason), had given up only one home run so far in 2017.
“We were thrilled,” said Cleveland Indians bench coach Brad Mills, who managed the AL team in place of Indians Manager Terry Francona, who was back in Cleveland following a medical procedure last week. “Nobody wants to have [the game] go too long. The last thing we wanted was to . . . risk an injury or something.”
It may have been merely coincidence, but while the spectacle of the All-Star Game, the rampant pageantry and symbolism, was as thick as ever, there was a lighter feel to the proceedings this year with the World Series tie-in now gone. Last year, for example, Seattle slugger Nelson Cruz probably wouldn’t have come to home plate with a camera phone in this pocket, then asked NL catcher Yadier Molina to snap his picture with umpire Joe West, as he did in Tuesday night’s sixth inning. With his phone tucked in his back pocket, Cruz flied out to center.
“I had it on silent,” Cruz said of his phone, “in case anyone called me.”
But at the same time — again, perhaps coincidentally — the game on the field seemed to lack a certain . . . something. One night after an electrifying display of power from Judge in winning the Derby, the power was shut off at Marlins Park. Nobody was talking about juiced balls on this night, as the only balls that left the yard were a couple of wall-scrapers — Molina’s 385-foot shot off Ervin Santana in the sixth and Cano’s blast in the 10th. Even the mighty Judge himself went 0 for 3, giving the crowd a brief rise with a flyball to right-center in his final at-bat that nonetheless died shy of the warning track.
Scherzer, who this season has taken Clayton Kershaw head-on for the right to be known as the best pitcher on the planet, stared in — with one blue eye and one brown one — at catcher Buster Posey’s sign and fired the first pitch at 8:22 p.m. He was flanked by three of his Nationals teammates, with Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Daniel Murphy at second and Bryce Harper in right field — and with a fifth, Stephen Strasburg, watching from the NL bench — their collective presence a testament to both the voting power of the Nationals’ fan base and the spoils of a 52-36 first half.
“Your pride’s on the line,” Scherzer said when asked about the end of the “This Time It Counts” era. “You want to go out there and show the world you can beat the best. Those are the best hitters in the American League right now. I don’t need anything on the line. I don’t need home-field advantage. I want to go out there and have success against them.”
When Judge, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound mountain of a man, made his way to home plate in the bottom of the first, following Jose Ramirez’s one-out single, Scherzer took a brief stroll behind the mound to gather himself before striking out the slugger with a slider, then mowed down the AL’s cleanup hitter, Houston’s George Springer, as well, to wrap up his one and only inning of work.
“Great competitor,” Judge said of facing Scherzer. “That was pretty cool. At 3-2, I’m looking for 100 [mph], and I got a slider. It happens.”
If all breaks well for Scherzer, he could very well find himself a year from now starting another All-Star Game, this time in his home stadium, as Nationals Park will host the 2018 game.
Harper, still only 24 but playing in his fifth All-Star Game in six big league seasons, singled and walked in two plate appearances and made a running, lunging catch in right field in the top of the second, the latter of which he punctuated with a GIF-worthy, shampoo-commercial-quality hair-flip.
By the end of the game, Harper, Murphy and Zimmerman were all on the bench, and Strasburg was in the NL bullpen, waiting to see if he would be needed. And with the final pitch, somewhere an imaginary calendar was flipped, and the Washington Nationals, Nationals Park and the District of Columbia were on the clock for the 2018 All-Star Game.