07/12/09 10:20 PM ET
Abundant talent on display in St. Louis
Prospects use speed and power to brighten Futures Game
The XM All-Star Futures Game on Sunday at Busch Stadium provided a suitable showcase for baseball's best young stars. The depth of talent was impressive; the breadth of talent was impressive. The only thing that wasn't impressive was the four-hour, nine-minute rain delay following the top of the first inning.
This sort of thing can drain the excitement out of any event other than outdoor mud wrestling. The reliable retractable-roof technology exists, and it provides shelter from the storm, while avoiding the deadening aspects of the permanent dome. And yet, in the vast majority of venues, the game remains at the mercy of the elements, just as it was in the 19th century. Every time there is a weather crisis -- such as a prolonged blizzard on one end of the climate spectrum, or a hurricane on the other -- what happens? The affected games are moved to Milwaukee. That city has a retractable roof, which is still being paid for by the local citizenry in good times, and currently, in bad.
But baseball's future stars, with the enthusiasm of relative youth, returned to the field on Sunday and produced a highly entertaining contest. The U.S. team came from behind to take a two-run lead on a three-run homer in the fifth inning by catcher Jason Castro, who plays for the Astros' Double-A affiliate. But the World team rallied with four runs in the top of the seventh to win, 7-5.
The game was shortened to seven innings because time had to be preserved for the telecast of the Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. This was not a happy choice for those of us who wanted to study and appreciate the future of baseball for another two innings. Any baseball purist could argue that a celebrity softball game, as entertainment value, is somewhere between the Futures Game and the rain delay.
One of the constants of the Futures Game -- apart from the view of forthcoming big league talent -- is the level of competition, both in the quality of play and the evenly matched talents of the two sides. There have been only two blowouts in 11 years of Futures Games. With Sunday's victory, the World took a 6-5 overall lead in the series and won its third consecutive Futures Game.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when an American All-Star baseball team, at any age level, could not lose to its international counterpart. It didn't matter if the opposing All-Star team covered the rest of the earth. It didn't matter if the opposition represented scores of other nations, or a separate galaxy, or a parallel universe. The baseball team from the United States of America would win, because this was our national pastime and victory was the only logical outcome.
That has changed, as anybody who viewed either or both of the first two World Baseball Classic tournaments would understand. And based on the results of the past three All-Star Futures Games, this trend is not going to be reversed soon. The U.S. is certainly not being embarrassed in these games, but it is also coming in second in a two-team league.
The renewed emphasis on speed was ever apparent in this game. Desmond Jennings, a Double-A outfielder in the Rays organization, stole three bases for the U.S. For the World team, Venezuelan infielder Alcides Escobar, a member of the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate and probably the leading shortstop prospect in the Minors, led off the game by hitting what amounted to a swinging bunt just up the third-base line. It appeared to be too close to the plate to do any damage, but Escobar's speed beat the play, and when the catcher's rushed throw was wide, Escobar took second. He later scored on a single and set a tone that lasted even beyond the rain delay.
In the third inning, speed turned almost nothing into something substantial for the World team. Outfielder Tyson Gillies, a Canadian playing High A ball in the Mariners organization, beat out a well-placed bunt to the right side. Then he stole second. Then he stole third. Finally, he scored on a double play. The baseball never came close to leaving the infield, but a run was discovered.
So after nearly seven hours of elapsed time, it was another victory for the World over the U.S. But given the quality of play -- hard-throwing pitchers with command, fine defensive plays, blazing speed on the bases, timely hitting -- in the larger sense it was a victory for baseball's future. A new generation of stars is on the horizon, headed toward big league success; weather permitting, of course.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.