Speed the key to All-Star success
Ichiro, Reyes demonstrate the changing dynamic of the game
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Home Run Derby was over. This All-Star Game was built for speed.
In the post-substance abuse era of the game, baseball has returned, at least part of the way, to its traditional virtues. Muscle up if you must, but pitching and defense have once again become not only fashionable, but necessary.
And so has foot speed. The 2007 All-Star Game was a showcase for what can be done by slender fellows, lithe leadoff hitters with sprinters' speed.
The American League won again, 5-4. But since the Junior Circuit has not lost an All-Star Game since 1996 and there is some valid question regarding when it will lose another, this was not the core news development.
Ichiro Suzuki, one of the finest leadoff men of this or any other era, got the American Leaguers two runs with an All-Star first, an inside-the-park home run in the fifth inning. The AL was trailing, 1-0, when Ichiro came up. It never trailed again. This was the turning point. This was the whole point.
No question, part of this event had to do with the pleasantly quirky nature of AT&T Park. Ichiro hit a drive to right-center that hit the corner of the wall and then took an abrupt right turn, headed straight toward the foul line. Right fielder Ken Griffey Jr., could not have expected this development, and what you had next, with Griffey's long pursuit of the ball, was a display of Ichiro's speed.
The play was no contest. It was Ichiro by about a month. Griffey's hurried throw missed the cutoff men, but even if had been true, Ichiro was headed for a safe-at-home finish. We all say that the triple is the most exciting play in baseball, but in fact, the inside-the-park home run can be even more exciting. It just happens so rarely, as in never before in All-Star Game history. And this inside-the-parker never would have occurred without Ichiro's extreme speed.
Ichiro was voted the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game. There could have been no other choice. It was not at all ironic that Ichiro and the Seattle Mariners were reportedly very close to agreement on a five-year extension of his contract for something in the neighborhood of $100 million.
Ichiro is a consummate blend of defensive skill as an outfielder, contact hitting, intelligence, aggressiveness and speed. He turns out to be the ideal 21st Century baseball player.
Before the inside-the-park home run had occurred, the National League's own leadoff hitter and North America's leading basestealer, shortstop Jose Reyes of the Mets, had created a run of his own.
Reyes led off the first inning with a single, stole second and scored on a single. He had two more hits, and if his NL teammates behind him in the order had found a way to support him, his own impact on the game would have been highly significant.
Yes, the American League did hit two home runs later in the game. And the National League's rally in the ninth was keyed by Alfonso Soriano's two-run homer. The home run has not vanished from the national pastime's landscape. But this game did not turn on home runs.
Ichiro's hit was technically a home run. But you saw it. It was a triple with legs. This game turned when Ichiro turned on the speed.
There had been frequent references in recent days around the notion that this would be "Barry Bonds' All-Star Game." It might have been that in terms of local popularity, but it was not that in terms of content.
Bonds' every move was cheered by the adoring San Francisco fans. And the pregame ceremonies centered on his godfather, Willie Mays, legitimately reached the level of touching.
The San Francisco view of Bonds is, understandably, a much more benign take than the one that is held throughout much of the baseball world. A Bonds home run could have been the touchstone of this entire event. But the best he could manage in two at-bats was a fly ball to the warning track in left. What might have been was not.
Had Bonds hit a home run and had that home run had anything to do with the outcome, that would have been the story of the 2007 All-Star Game. But this Midsummer Classic had a larger theme than even that.
The game was set in motion on both sides by men of modest builds, fleet of foot, making their presence known and their impact felt by putting their bats on the baseballs and then running as fast as they possibly could.
That used to be a larger part of the game than it has been in recent years. But in the 2007 All-Star Game, with MVP Ichiro Suzuki and Jose Reyes, it was a key element once again. And it provided every bit as much All-Star excitement as a 450-foot blast.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.