When your city plays host to the All-Star Game, it becomes the capital of baseball for a few days. And, like any capital, it becomes a willing victim of pomp and pageantry, of events inflated to overshadow their utter lack of importance. The All-Star Game just played at Wrigley Field offered nothing profound and nothing of any real meaning. The game's return, under the lights, after a 28-year banishment from Wrigley should have been a primer of how the game has changed with the dominance of television--how it's become the tool of the medium, and not the other way around --but, aside from the rain delay being dragged out to accommodate network replacement programming and a small but irritating incident involving a Minicam crew atop a neighboring building (the light was a distraction to batters, halting play during the fourth inning), that was not the case. (The jinx of the Wrigley Field lights still exists, but it's subsiding; after the first night game and the first opening-day night were both rained out, the first night All-Star Game at Wrigley fell victim to rain, but at least they managed to finish this time.)
Perhaps it's that anyone who's endured the changes that have already swept over Wrigley has to be callous enough to accept the usual All-Star additions, such as warplanes swooping overhead at the conclusion of the national anthem and muckety-mucks standing in the aisles. Perhaps it's that the All-Star Game has always been an occasion for ostentatiousness, and that it's only now reaching its natural level of self-promotion and -congratulation.
In any case, the All-Star Game endures as a collection of moments, as clashes of ego, as--to borrow from the soft-drink advertisement--an annual celebration of the classic (if meaningless) confrontation. To its credit, the 61st All-Star Game added to the canon a new moment that was almost sublime, involving as it did one of the game's colossal egos in a delightful twist of managerial strategy. To say that the game's highlight was an intentional walk might usually be an insult, but in the All-Star Game played earlier this month it was simply the fact of the matter--and a very good game it was.
That fact, however, could use some fleshing out, beginning with the events of the day before--a workout day, including batting practice for both the American and National league teams, an old-timers' All-Star Game, and a home-run-hitting contest between four players from each league. Batting practice had that wonderful feeling all fans must experience when the All-Star Game comes to their town, that feeling re-created in Field of Dreams (one of the few good things about the movie) of wandering into one's own backyard and finding the best players of a generation there, cavorting about and teasing and testing one another. There were also the notable players who use the relaxed restrictions of exhibition play to make fashion statements: the odd player trying on white shoes (Roberto Alomar of the San Diego Padres, for instance, but not alone in this very subdued form of styling) and, of course, hatless Jose Canseco, fresh from the signing of a record five-year, $23-million-dollar contract, which made him the highest-paid player in baseball history. Canseco quickly became the unfortunate focus of the fans' attention (and a full house was on hand), as the anchor man on the visiting American League home-run team and as the reigning ego on a field with no shortage of the substance.
Canseco is an awesome specimen of the modern-day athlete, with a body fully developed through weight training (for which he comes under attack from the more cynical fans and sportswriters as a possible user of steroids), with a talent for the game both defensive and offensive, and with the predictable frailties of a 26-year-old who's at the top of his profession. (He has a fondness for fast cars and, less predictably, for leaving handguns sticking out noticeably from under their seats.) He may well be the best player in baseball; he is certainly the best power hitter. For this, he earns the largest salary, and he also attracts the most derision, which he invites by going hatless at All-Star workouts and with his large and uninhibited, truly Ruthian swing. He did not hit a single homer during the homer-hitting contest, but his at-bat was the second most entertaining, in that he put on a fearsome display of breezy whiffs and pop-ups hit high into the air like misguided mortar shots. Only Oakland's Mark McGwire for the American League and San Francisco's Matt Williams for the Nationals reached the fence, before Ryne Sandberg ended the contest in the bottom half of the anchor inning with a home run, then--unlike in real baseball--continued his inning until his outs were up, hitting two more homers and sending the fans into a frenzy.
The following night, the atmosphere around the batting cage was ever so slightly more professional. The charming thing about the All-Star Game is that it's free of much of the excess baggage that usually accompanies big games-- that preoccupation with pressure and choking. No one is said to choke when failing in an All-Star Game, and Stan Musial is not considered a pressure player simply because he hit six homers in All-Star play (not the way Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth are considered pressure players for their 18 and 15 homers in World Series play), but at the same time it's obvious that none of the players wants to embarrass himself, for the simple reason that no player wants to be the laughingstock of the nation for two or three weeks of the summer. Egos are involved, and pride, and when one comes right down to it the most delightful thing about the All-Star Game itself is that these are the motivating forces--not money or endorsements but something basic and human.
The managers--last year's pennant winners, Oakland's Tony LaRussa for the Americans and San Francisco's Roger Craig for the Nationals--loomed over this game as over no other All-Star Game in memory. The play of both teams throughout was sharp, alert, and precise, and the managers should be given much of the credit for that. LaRussa, for instance, had instituted signs and told his players to be alert for them; we know, because in the seventh inning Sandy Alomar Jr., at first base, stopped the game and signaled to third-base coach Jim Lefebvre (the Seattle manager and a former LaRussa coach at Oakland) to run through his set of signs again. When was the last time an All-Star Game was halted because a player had missed a set of signs and needed to have them repeated? Craig, meanwhile, managed persistently but erratically. He was much more quick with the hook for his pitchers than LaRussa was, and this proved to be his downfall. With the wind blowing in, pitchers dominated, and since Craig went through many more pitchers than LaRussa it was more likely he would eventually stumble onto one who didn't have his stuff (his own Giant bull-pen ace Jeff Brantley, who allowed two hits to open the seventh, before the rain delay) or who might make one critical mistake (Cincinnati's Rob Dibble, who replaced Brantley after the delay and who grooved an 0-and-2 fastball to Texas's Julio Franco, who drilled it into the right-center gap for a double, scoring both base runners with the only runs of the game).
Yet Craig's most notable piece of managing was a pair of intentional walks. Now, just before the game, a successful manager--I believe it was Sparky Anderson--was quoted as saying the All-Star Game was stupid, from a point of view of paying attention to who wins and loses, because in real baseball in a critical situation he might walk a man to face the next guy, whereas he couldn't in the All-Star Game because the fans wanted to see the players hit. In the top of the third, Craig ignored this completely and, with two out and a runner on second, ordered Boston's Wade Boggs walked to get to Canseco. It was a bold move that set everyone--players as well as fans--on edge. It was notable because intentional walks simply aren't done in the All-Star Game, because it showed a real desire to win the game, and because, of course, Canseco is the most dangerous hitter in baseball in that situation. Craig had ordered Boggs walked strictly to set up the righty-righty percentages; everything else pointed to danger. And even if Canseco made an out that time, he'd be coming to the plate seeing red on at least two more occasions. Ramon Martinez, the Los Angeles rookie right-hander (wearing elegant white shoes that somehow seemed to make his pitches look faster than usual), was on the mound, and he got ahead of Canseco 1-and-2. Canseco, however, is known as an excellent two-strike hitter, and he spoiled a pair of fine Martinez pitches on the outside corner. Then he grounded to second. It was the most tension-filled at-bat I've ever seen in an All-Star Game, not because the game was on the line--who ever cares that the All-Star Game is on the line?--but because Canseco was challenged to his very essence. His self-image was on the line. Craig then got away with another intentional walk in the sixth, passing Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. to get to McGwire to set up the percentages, and McGwire flew to center. When was the last time a manager intentionally walked two people in a game to get to two of the best home-run hitters in baseball, and succeeded on both counts? It's probably almost never been done during the regular season, and it's certainly never been done in the All-Star Game.
Canseco's day didn't look like much in the box score the next day, but his plate appearances were--aside from Franco's double--the highlight of the game. He struck out awesomely in the first, getting the fans going, walked and stole second in the sixth, then in the seventh hit a fly to the Mets' Darryl Strawberry in right that appeared to be deep enough to score Franco from third, but Strawberry gunned down Franco at the plate, ending the inning and keeping the Nationals in the game. Canseco also made the last American League out in the game. That, his third-inning groundout after the intentional walk, and his double-play fly ball to Strawberry in the seventh were the only sources of satisfaction for the National League fans who filled Wrigley Field. We were rooting, however, for the American League, the new All-Star powerhouse, winner of three in a row and four in five years. But, of course, these games don't really count for anything.