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Baseball needs to trust the game

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

It came as no surprise the most entertaining moment of the All-Star game involved a sawed-off bat sailing down a baseline. What was surprising is that it had nothing to do with Roger Clemens facing Mike Piazza yet again.

After Tuesday night's installment, it's safe to say the midsummer classic has taken the final step from competition to exhibition -- and a shmaltzy exhibition at that.

Cal Ripken's home run in his final All-Star appearance will linger in the memory for some time. But there's no way to forget soon enough the silly mid-game interruption in which a podium was dragged onto the field so commissioner Bud Selig could hand lifetime achievement awards to Ripken and Tony Gwynn.

The ceremony demonstrated just how far baseball's higher-ups will go these days to curry public favor. Even Ripken, who got wind of the plan from Selig, wasn't too crazy about the idea.

''I told him I was kind of sensitive about interrupting the game,'' he recalled afterward. ''The game should go on with a certain flow.''

Not if the suits continue to have their way. Troubled by a 45 percent plunge in TV ratings for the All-Star game since 1990, Selig & Co. no longer seem willing to trust the game to sell itself. Too bad.

With his first at-bat, Seattle Mariners sensation Ichiro Suzuki reminded us again why baseball's appeal spans generations and crosses borders with ease. It rewards brains as well as brawn. It respects precision just as much as power. It has room for players with more guile than talent. Ichiro slapped a delivery from fearsome National League starter Randy Johnson just inside the line, and when first baseman Todd Helton made a diving stop on the ball, Ichiro alertly beat Johnson and the relay to first base.

Clemens employed a similar strategy in his first meeting with Piazza since last year's World Series. Instead of matching his New York rival strength for strength, Clemens uncharacteristically worked the outside corner of the plate for the entire at-bat. His patience was rewarded after seven pitches, when Piazza flied out weakly to right. What this showdown lacked in drama it more than made up for in the satisfaction both men derived from knowing last season's highly charged confrontations are behind them -- at least for now.

''As far as I'm concerned,'' Clemens said, ''it is.''

''If he had thrown one inside, it wouldn't have surprised me at all,'' Piazza said. ''I just went up there and approached it like any other at-bat.''

It was left to Ripken to provide the fireworks, and he didn't disappoint. The Seattle fans didn't pick up on the occasion when Ripken first stepped into the batter's box. But they made up for the brief silence with a growing roar that quickly became a standing ovation. Ripken stepped out of the batter's box to acknowledge the cheers, then brought the crowd right back to its feet by pounding Chan Ho Park's first pitch over the fence in left.

He circled the bases as the oldest man ever to hit a home run in an All-Star game, going to the head of a line that includes the names Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In some ways, the moment rivaled that of Williams hitting a game-winning, three-run homer in the 1941 All-Star game. Except of course, that Ripken had been replaced long before this one was over.

Few players go nine innings anymore. The game just doesn't mean as much. They're no longer about proving which league is better. Much of the drama and most of the competition has been diluted by free agency and interleague play.

Anybody who thinks otherwise need only recall how many times Fox treated us to replays of Tommy Lasorda, who coached third base for the NL, tumbling backward after getting whacked on the thigh by the barrel end of Vladimir Guerrero's broken bat. It wasn't baseball, but it was as much a signature moment as Ripken's memorable blast.

''I'm not quite as agile as I used to be,'' Lasorda joked. ''I'll be 74 in a couple months.''

The midsummer classic officially turned 72 on Tuesday night. There's been considerable debate in recent years about changing the format to raise the stakes, about having a team of U.S. stars play their international counterparts, or allowing the winning league to have home-field advantage when the World Series begins.

This much, though, is certain. Making the game secondary to the spectacle means those baseball moments we prize from the past will be harder and harder to come by.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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