All-Star game is a National lampoon
ST. LOUIS – President Barack Obama appeared on national television Tuesday night and declared “this is a problem” about which of the following:
a) The economy
b) Health-care reform
c) The National League All-Star team
The last dozen years had been embarrassing and all to those wearing NL uniforms, but this was a new low: a sitting president, in the midst of a crippling recession, a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing and a never-ending war, called their All-Star game futility problematic.
So goes life for the NL team, which might as well get it over with and hire Red Klotz as full-time manager. It’s inexplicable that the NL hasn’t won an All-Star game since 1996, the latest defeat a 4-3 heart-stomper at Busch Stadium that the American League stole on an eighth-inning sacrifice fly – and by retiring 18 straight NL hitters at one juncture.
Excluding the 2002 tie, the NL has lost 12 straight games. Charlie Brown thinks the NL stinks. Chico’s Bail Bonds has some jerseys for its players. The president – in the nicest way possible, of course – didn’t stop his mockery at one offhanded comment.
“Three, four years, you can say it’s just happenstance,” he said, “but it starts to get to be a trend when you’re starting to go on 12 years. What’s going on?”
No one knows. It’s not like the NL is bereft of talent. Since its last win, one current Hall of Famer (Tony Gwynn(notes)) has been a starter and another dozen or so future inductees have graced its roster. And it can’t be the magic alone of Ichiro Suzuki’s yearly speech. Hall of Famer Lou Brock tried his own pep talk with the NL on Tuesday, and it didn’t have quite the same effect, nor the copious cursing.
Let’s assume the chance of winning the All-Star game a coin flip, no team ever considerably stronger than the other. Using a simple binomial distribution and those odds, the likelihood of one team losing 12 straight games is .000244140625.
That is less than 1 percent. Tinier than half of a percent. Smaller than half of a half of a percent. Take that number, divide it by 10, and it’s still bigger than the chance of the NL failing in 12 straight All-Star games.
Thus flooded the questions, the same ones that have polluted postgame NL clubhouses for about a decade now. Why can’t they win, and how are they going to break the streak, and can someone just get to work on an AL voodoo doll pronto?
“I have no idea,” said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, and he couldn’t think of any better explanation, so again he said, “I have no idea,” and some more brain wracking finally yielded some greater insight: “I have no idea. … It’s weird.”
The streak started with Torre managing the AL to a 3-1 win in 1997. He helmed four more wins and oversaw the 7-7 tie, the NL’s lone stab at respectability – during which, incidentally, it blew a 4-0 lead.
More of the same transpired Tuesday. Albert Pujols(notes), the hometown star of All-Star week, booted a ground ball in the first inning to allow the first AL run. Tim Lincecum(notes), the dynamic NL starter, was late covering first base on another ground ball, and another run scored. And even though the NL stormed back with three runs in the second inning, its bats turned into matchsticks thereafter and didn’t awaken until the eighth inning.
By then, Carl Crawford(notes) had pulled a would-be home run by Brad Hawpe(notes) back over the left-field wall, and his AL outfield mates, Curtis Granderson(notes) and Adam Jones(notes), had pushed across the go-ahead run with a triple and sacrifice fly. The offending pitcher, San Diego closer Heath Bell(notes), threw his glove in the dugout and kicked a door, and that’s even before he realized that he was the third Padre in the last four years to blow an All-Star game.
It had been a good night for Bell. Obama spent 25 minutes before the game glad-handing players in both clubhouses. Bell, wearing a T-shirt that read I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL, said he planted a big hug on the president.
His tenor changed when he heard Obama’s assessment of the NL.
“If he’s really worried about that,” Bell said, “you can tell him to wear a National League jacket once.”
Obama sported Chicago White Sox gear on his way to the mound, where he threw a first pitch that Pujols rescued from bouncing in front of the plate. This should have been a good omen. The NL had won all four games with current presidents tossing the ceremonial pitch.
Nothing like some bad NL juju to spoil that.
“He has the ability to change things if he wishes,” said Milwaukee closer Trevor Hoffman(notes), who is now 0-7 in All-Star games. “If he limits their roster to two players, and maybe let us pick the two, he might have a chance. Any kind of advantage he wants to give us, we’ll take.”
Maybe after the president takes care of more pressing matters. Like the BCS.
For now, the NL must persevere with its own solution. Arizona outfielder Justin Upton(notes), a future All-Star mainstay, was 8 years old and playing AAU ball with the Virginia Blasters when the NL last won. He didn’t remember a lick of the NL’s 6-0 victory, a seven-hit, no-walk, nine-pitcher shutout.
“We’ll get a team together that’s going to beat them,” Upton said. “It just has to happen.”
And it could’ve. With two outs in the eighth inning, Adrian Gonzalez(notes) walked and advanced to third base on Orlando Hudson’s(notes) single. In stepped Ryan Howard(notes), a native St. Louisan. AL manager Joe Maddon stuck with Joe Nathan(notes) instead of switching to Brian Fuentes(notes) for a lefty-on-lefty matchup.
Nathan pumped two shoulder-high 93-mph fastballs that Howard swung through. He threw another that Howard fouled off, and two more that he took for balls, and just when it seemed Howard was seeing Nathan well, in came an 89-mph slider in the dirt that turned Howard into a swinging pretzel. Crisis over, Mariano Rivera(notes) in for the ninth, good night.
The NL tried to shrug it off. Those 11 previous teams were completely independent of this one. It’s just one game. And no matter what Bud Selig tries to say, it is an exhibition.
“National League, American League – we’re all family,” Hudson said. “It’s fun.”
For the AL maybe. For the NL, Tuesday was another loop of sad trombone music. Every year, the players are convinced a new team is bound to be the solution. And every year, it’s just a repeat of the last, one loss on top of another, a problem even the president can’t ignore.