07/16/2003 2:30 AM ET
A classic Midsummer Classic
Compelling baseball makes everything else secondary
CHICAGO -- Forget the debate about the format change. Save the World Series home-field advantage discussion for October. This was exactly the kind of All-Star Game that baseball needed.
Hank Blalock watches his two-run homer that lifted the AL to an All-Star Game win. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
The participants will tell you that having that World Series edge for the representative of the winning league made no difference in their approach to this game. They can be taken at their word. This was a classic Midsummer Classic regardless of new rules, different regulations and a promotional campaign by a major network.
This game had drama. This game had ebb and flow. This game had an All-Star rookie hero. And for sentiment's sake, the home team won.
The American League triumphed in the 2003 All-Star Game, 7-6, at U.S. Cellular Field Tuesday night. So, the AL will have the home-field advantage in the 2003 World Series, even though, under the old annual rotation this would have been the National League's turn. All of this is true, but all of it is secondary to the kind of game the 2003 All-Stars produced.
This change in the All-Star Game's format did not change the essence of the game. Back to the basics reminds Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals: "Most games are decided because somebody pitches worse than somebody else."
The AL was down, 6-3, going to the bottom of the seventh inning and if it was going to come back, it would have to do so against some of the best relief pitchers in the game. The AL got one run off Houston's Billy Wagner. And then it got three off Eric Gagne of the Dodgers, the centerpiece of that being a two-run, pinch-hit blast by Texas Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock. They beat the best that the National League had to offer.
This is what the game meant Tuesday night, this is what it has always meant, this is what it will continue to mean, no matter where the World Series opens.
"The fans in Chicago and the fans all across the world saw a great baseball game tonight," said Luis Gonzalez, outfielder of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a four-time All-Star. "Tonight, the fans across the baseball world saw a fantastic All-Star Game. For it being played in Chicago, one of the greatest sports cities, for them to see a game like this, the fans got their money's worth. You know, everybody hyped up, 'It all counts,' and all this stuff. To us, we played it the same way we would have played any other game.
"I think the intensity was just the same. Nothing has changed. Everybody approached the game the same way. You still want to go out there and play well, do the best that you can. You're playing in front of the national audience, you're playing in front of the world."
If there is a change that comes out of the result-oriented payoff -- if baseball gets what it wants out of this updated approach -- the change will come off the field, in the area of increased All-Star viewership. The new format gave the broadcast network, Fox, new promotional ammunition. Those of us who were already tuning in anyway might have tired of, "This time it counts" some time ago. But we understood the underlying need behind the oft-repeated slogan.
And the best advertisement for baseball is not "This time it counts." The best advertisement for baseball is exactly this kind of game.
The idea that the All-Star Game was previously treated by its participants as a mere exhibition game was basically a myth. Nobody who has excelled enough in his career to be named to an All-Star squad wants to show up at this level and look bad in front of millions of people. These players are all competitors. For them, the choice between victory and defeat is not a choice at all.
It was what Dusty Baker, manager of the Chicago Cubs and of this National League squad said about managing under the new circumstances. "I want to win, I don't care whether we're playing jacks, or tiddlywinks or checkers," Baker said. "We're playing a game, I want to beat you."
But you cannot change anything in baseball without the howls of traditionalists filling the air. In a way this is good. Baseball can't forget its traditions, because every time it alters anything, there is a chorus of voices reminding everyone that this wasn't the way it was always done. The arrival of the Wild Card was greeted this way. Ditto for Interleague Play. And the designated hitter, about which, frankly, some of us are still howling.
But what happened Tuesday night before a U.S. Cellular Field record crowd of 47,609, was the quality of the game taking over from the intensity of the argument.
The format change did not change the overall pattern of the game. The managers still substituted liberally. This was not a game with waves of reserves spending an idle, wasted evening on Chicago's South Side. Maybe AL manager Mike Scioscia argued his case a bit more than normal on the issue of just how far an NL runner could advance on a ground-rule double. But this wasn't the difference between night and day. It was more the difference between twilight and dusk.
OK, the American League gets the home-field advantage in the 2003 World Series. Will the National League All-Stars hear echoes of this defeat in October? Will the National League team in the Series feel betrayed because the NL All-Stars didn't do their part on a night in mid-July?
"You know what, as long as you're playing in the game in October, it doesn't matter if you've got home field or not," Gonzalez said. "As long as you're one of those two teams in there, I could care less if we were playing in Timbuktu. As long as the Arizona Diamondbacks are in there, it doesn't matter to me."
Even the National Leaguers, the losers in the home field argument, could take something good out of Tuesday night. When the baseball is this compelling, everything else becomes secondary.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.