Classic fits in with All-Star tradition
Drama and setting combine for game to remember
PITTSBURGH -- Even for the Midsummer Classic, this game will stand as a classic.
It was not simply the quality of play, the close and compelling competition, although there was plenty of all that in the 2006 All-Star Game. This Tuesday night in western Pennsylvania was an evening that delighted the eye and touched the heart.
The American League kept alive a 10-year unbeaten streak with a 3-2 victory, achieved in classic style, with a ninth-inning comeback.
A parade of National League hurlers had limited the powerful AL lineup to one run over eight innings, but the Americans rallied against one of the greatest closers in the game, Trevor Hoffman, with Michael Young's two-run triple making all the difference. And then, the AL finished with its own greatness at closer, Mariano Rivera.
It looked like the National League for a long time, a 2-1 lead holding up from the third through the eighth. There was the best kind of baseball long associated with the Senior Circuit: outstanding pitching, brilliant defensive plays and speed on the basepaths leading to a decisive run on the scoreboard.
"I turned to my coaches and said, 'Why me? Why do I have to lose this game?'" American League manager Ozzie Guillen said with a smile.
But the American League, as usual, was not to be turned away.
There was all of this world-class baseball in a setting that is as pleasing to the eye as anything a Major League ballpark has ever produced. PNC Park opens to the Allegheny River and downtown Pittsburgh and it is a beautiful sight, a ballpark totally at home in its urban environment. And the sight of thousands of citizens streaming across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, coming to the ballpark as part of a grand pedestrian pilgrimage, just feels somehow heartening.
And this Tuesday night in July, that same Roberto Clemente lived on in more than memory. You have seen these in-game tributes before, the presentation of the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Awards. Maybe some of them seemed all right. Maybe some of them seemed intrusive. But this one seemed perfect.
Clemente remains a Pittsburgh hero, but that is just the start. He was a Latin American baseball pioneer, a baseball player of immense talent and charisma and a legitimate hero in his larger life, a humanitarian who gave his life while attempting to bring aid to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
The presence of Clemente's widow, Vera, and the overwhelming response of the PNC Park audience of 38,904, all these 33 years after Clemente's death, made this a particularly poignant moment. In the visitors' dugout, Guillen, who has long idolized Clemente, wiped away tears.
"We see Roberto, he was a Latino who opened doors for the rest of the people," Guillen said after the game. "I think a lot of people remember Roberto because of the way he died. A lot of people remember Roberto for the way he played the game.
"But I think what Roberto gave to the community, day in and day out, the way he showed up and played, that's the way people should be: taking the steps in life, not just in baseball. I mean, his life was unbelievable, outstanding.
"It means a lot to all the Latin players, and I don't say just the Latin players, baseball in general. When this man walked on the field, it seemed like that was a real ballplayer. That's why he's one of my heroes. I always admired him. One of my kids is named Roberto. This man means a lot to me."
The game itself was good enough that the losing side would leave with something less than triumph, but more than anything would retain the sense of competing in a very special event. Phil Garner, National League manager, takes defeat as hard as anyone. But when he was asked if this defeat stung, Garner replied:
"No, it doesn't sting at all. This was a well-played ballgame. You tip your hat to those guys who came back in the ninth inning. Obviously, I would have loved to win the game, but I'm not disappointed. It was a well-played game. It was a wonderful experience for me."
Maybe the Hollywood version of this game would have given the victory to the Nationals. Maybe the perfect circle would have been unbroken if the NL had won in Pittsburgh, where Garner played on the 1979 championship Pirates, the team managed by Chuck Tanner, who was named by Garner as an honorary NL coach for this game.
OK, this wasn't the best result for sentimentality. But for the rest of the evening, this was baseball's showcase July event, with the game at its very best.
The quality of play was here. The drama was here. The All-Stars performed at All-Star levels. It all transpired in a wonderful riverside ballpark. And the memory of Roberto Clemente lived on through all of it. As a total baseball experience, in all the wealth of emotions that this game can produce, yes, this was the Midsummer Classic.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.