07/11/07 2:25 AM ET
NL comes close, but AL streak lives on
Junior Circuit hasn't lost Midsummer Classic since '96
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
A young shortstop named Cal Ripken Jr. was selected to his first of 19 consecutive American League All-Star teams, and he remembers how it felt when he and his AL teammates finally ended the streak at old Comiskey Park.
"When I first came into the American League clubhouse, the National League had a string of victories, and they were dominating the American League and they were thought to be the better league," says Ripken, who will be inducted as a Hall of Famer later this month.
"I remember [the] team meeting. ... In the early stages, it was like, 'Congratulations for being on the team and well deserved; for some it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but let me apologize if I can't get all of you guys in the game because I'm managing this game to win. We're going to win. Those guys over there think they are better than we are, and we're out to prove they are not.'"
Ask people around Major League Baseball now, including those like Ripken, who participated in those older streak days, and they will tell you that something similar seems to be happening. Yes, the bottom line is the same, and yes many people still think the AL is somehow the better league. Victor Martinez of the Indians hit a two-run homer that stood up despite a memorable NL rally in the bottom of the ninth, and it was yet another AL victory, this time by a 5-4 score at AT&T Park.
Yes, it marked the 11th consecutive year without an NL victory (2002 tie included), dating back to that 1996 game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Yes, it looks bad, really bad, when viewed in black and white. But anyone watching closely can see that someone is knocking on the door at the Midsummer Classic. Seriously. How are you going to tell a guy like Alfonso Soriano, the 2005 All-Star MVP for the AL, that his homer for the NL on Tuesday meant nothing?
"We'll win one of these years," Trevor Hoffman of the Padres said after this loss, which comes one year after he surrendered the ninth-inning, walk-off triple to Michael Young that cost the NL a 2006 breakthrough. "It's one of those things. Guys aren't packing it in. They're scratching and clawing."
That is what Rick Sutcliffe was saying after watching the NL rally, loading the bases against often untouchable closers J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez, and threatening to make some magic before Aaron Rowand of the Phillies flied out to right to end it. Sutcliffe was providing commentary in the radio broadcast booth for MLB International, and it made him harken back to that same 1983 All-Star Game, when he was an Indians pitcher and a first-time All-Star along with Ripken.
"I was there in '83, when guys were talking about taking enough crap," Sutcliffe remembers now. "It was the same kind of intensity that you can see now by the National League. Eventually, it just breaks through."
Since the rules were changed following 2002, giving World Series home-field advantage to the winning league, the All-Star Game has been played as closely as one might expect of two leagues stocked with the most elite players. The only real exception was the 9-4 AL victory in 2004 that included the first-inning assault on NL starter Roger Clemens at his home park in Houston.
It was a two-run AL victory in 2005 at Detroit, and a one-run game each of the last two years. This time the NL struck first, with Ken Griffey Jr.'s sacrifice fly, and then a never-to-be-forgotten inside-the-park homer by Ichiro Suzuki, and the AL never trailed again. There was rich entertainment in this Midsummer Classic. And that included the dramatic finish, hardly an indicator of one particular league dominating.
"Last year, we were an out away from winning -- it's not like they're blowing us out," said NL outfielder Matt Holliday, representing the Rockies. "[Tuesday night] we were one pitch away, or a wild pitch away, it just didn't work out."
"If we compete like this every year, we'll win," said NL manager Tony La Russa, who has lost to the AL two of the last four years. "We took care of our business. We just came up a run short. If we go like this every year, then we will win our share."
Putz was just glad that the modern version of 1983 did not happen in this game. He gave up that two-run bomb to Soriano and then walked J.J. Hardy.
"It worked out ... we won," Putz said. "That's all that matters. We kept the streak alive."
Don't ask Derek Jeter what it feels like to lose an All-Star Game. He never has experienced that. His first Midsummer Classic was in 1998, and this was his eighth selection.
"It was fun to watch," said Jeter, voted as the AL starting shortstop by fans. "I don't know how fun it was to be in there at the end. But it was a great game for the fans. You want to win. I don't particularly like [the home-field advantage rule], but I want to win."
That's what the AL guys were saying in that first All-Star Game for Ripken and Sutcliffe back in '83. Then the breakthrough finally happened. Maybe the same thing will happen next year at Yankee Stadium for the NL. Maybe La Russa not playing his own superstar Albert Pujols in this game was just like the clubhouse speech that Ripken heard his AL manager give back in '83.
Looking at the ninth inning of the last two All-Star Games, it sure feels like a change could happen soon. But it's still 11 in a row without an NL victory, and that means next summer will either be a long-awaited end to the drought or the longest stretch without an All-Star victory by either league in the event's history.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.