Pride on line for Senior Circuit
Garner looking to return home field advantage to NL
PITTSBURGH -- If you go around saying, "I remember when the National League dominated the All-Star Game," you are definitely dating yourself.
I've done this myself, but it is now the baseball equivalent of saying: "When I was a kid we had to walk to school and it was 10 miles each way and uphill in both directions." It is, basically, evidence of creeping old codger status. Yes, the chances are you're in the midst of the whole Baby Boom thing and maybe even on the back demographic edge. The letters are starting to arrive from the AARP, suggesting that you had better join up, in order to take full advantage of what are generously termed your "golden years."
All right, there is no question that the NL won every All-Star Game from 1963-1970. Then, with the briefest possible interruption in 1971, the NL won every All-Star Game from 1972-1982. Oh, man, the Senior Circuit was dominant then.
But times change, and so do All-Star results. As we approach the 2006 All-Star Game in PNC Park on Tuesday night, the American League has not lost in 10 years. And the one game it didn't win during that stretch, in 2002, was a tie. The National League still holds a 40-34-2 overall edge, but these are the good old days for the American League.
This has become a particularly acute issue, now that the winner of the All-Star Game gets home field advantage in the World Series. The question of what the one thing has to do with the other remains valid, but this is how Major League Baseball has chosen to spice up the Midsummer Classic and we must all soldier on and play by these rules. Two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals won 105 games in the regular season and were the best team in baseball without question or debate. But they couldn't get a sniff of home field advantage, because their league got drilled, 9-4, in the All-Star Game. Tough break, Redbirds. Welcome back to the winners' circle, Boston Red Sox.
But what next? What is the National League going to do to get back into this thing?
The 2006 NL manager, Phil Garner, appeared in three All-Star Games as a player. That was when he was a feisty character known as "Scrap Iron." As manager of the Houston Astros, he's still a feisty character. He would like to see the National League return to a more competitive frame of mind for this game.
"It has changed a little bit over the years," Garner said Monday. "When I first came up playing and Pete Rose was involved in the All-Star Game, the first thing that you noticed was fierce determination to win the All-Star Game. Right when I was coming in at the tail end of that, guys played to win the All-Star Game; Pete Rose is going to run over somebody if he had to at the plate; guys are going to take people out on the double play. It was played like it was the last game of the World Series.
"So, I think I can honestly say there was a little more pride in playing the game. Then it kind of got to where it was just an exhibition game, guys just going out and strut their stuff. They looked at it as an exhibition game, 'Take a couple at bats. I'll show the fans what I can do. I'll throw an inning and show the fans what I can do.' So, I think it drifted into that mode.
"I think at this moment now the American League is taking it a little more seriously. I think talent is equal. I think that what's imperative for us is to get this thing back from just an exhibition game into the sense that this is the National League, we're tired of getting beat. We'd like to bring a victory back for us and take that home field advantage.
"So to me, the task this year is let's get that sense of pride back in the National League."
Garner made a point of repeating the notion that the NL truly wanted to win this game for league-wide self-respect and for the World Series edge.
"We do want to win," Garner said. "We found out painfully last year that home field is an advantage in the World Series."
The last two World Series have been sweeps for the AL team with the home field advantage, although reasonable people can agree that the White Sox were winning last year's Series regardless of locale.
As to the gist of Garner's argument, it is possible that American Leaguers have been taking the Midsummer Classic more seriously than their Senior Circuit counterparts over the last decade. That seems sort of arbitrary, but it could be the case.
What could also be the case is that we are simply in the midst of a cycle of American League superiority. Everyone points to the American League's superior quantity and quality of hitting because of the designated hitter. This All-Star Game, played in this beautiful National League Park, will not allow for that specific argument.
And the truth is that there are three teams in one AL division alone that have better pitching staffs than anybody in the entire National League. Those teams would be the White Sox, Tigers and Twins, and that division would be the AL Central. This was the telling difference this season when those three teams combined to go an astounding 45-9 in Interleague Play.
Maybe Garner's time-tested underdog's managerial touch will help steal one for the National League and end the AL streak. But on paper, the AL All-Star team would be the more established and proven group in the 2006 encounter.
There are some of us who can remember when this was dramatically different. But our children can't remember this. You can still hold forth publicly on the topic of the NL's former superiority, but it is becoming more and more like explaining why "The Ed Sullivan Show" was really something special.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.