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Tuesday night began with an extended tribute to the Great Game’s glorious past. The Midsummer Classic, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, always includes an element of nostalgia. At a minimum fans are treated to the sight of an aging but still beloved hero, a former star for the franchise that calls that year’s venue home, striding to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. In recent years it was George Brett in Kansas City in 2012, Rod Carew in Anaheim in 2010, and a quartet of former Yankees at the Stadium in 2008. All have taken their turn, waving and smiling as thunderous cheers rolled down from the stands and washed over them like a sea-foam of adulation.
At times the center of attention within the game itself is a player at the end of his career, whose achievements are celebrated one last time. Hardened ballplayers in the midst of great seasons became star struck fans as they stood in front of empty dugouts at Citi Field two years ago, joining the packed house in a prolonged standing ovation as Mariano Rivera jogged in from the bullpen to pitch the 8th inning. Last year Adam Wainwright set his glove down and stepped back off the mound, leading his National League teammates on the diamond and more than 41,000 at Target Field in saluting Derek Jeter as the Yankee captain came to bat in the bottom of the 1st.
Over the years the All-Star Game has grown from a one evening exhibition between the two leagues into an extended extravaganza of baseball-related events. This year marked the 31st Home Run Derby in which a handful of sluggers wow the crowd the night before the main event. The Futures Game, between promising minor leaguers, was added in 1999; and a celebrity softball contest became part of the schedule two years later. Now every host city adds its own mix of parties and parades, exhibits and entertainments to fill up what has become All-Star Week.
In that heightened environment it was perhaps inevitable that MLB added more fan voting this year on top of the election of the starting lineups. For a month at the start of the season each team’s faithful voted for their “Franchise Four,” the top performers in their own squad’s history; as well as the four overall “Greatest Living Players.” Of course for fans of any sport such lists are sure to spark debate, which explains why more than 25 million votes were cast. The election wasn’t entirely open, as fans could only choose from a preselected slate for each team as well as the “greatest living;” but that obviously didn’t diminish interest.
The “Franchise Four” results were announced during the pre-game ceremonies. While a few active players were included in the foursome of some teams, the quartet of Reds, the only group actually introduced in person in Cincinnati, was more typical. Shortstop Barry Larkin, the youngest of the four, retired eleven years ago. Larkin was joined on the field by Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, all three decades removed from their playing days.
Voters for several other teams opted to go even deeper into their franchise’s history. Fans of the Dodgers selected Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider. Voters in the Bronx passed over the recently retired Jeter and Rivera in favor of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
The choices for the “Greatest Living Players” were all retirees, and given the slate of candidates it was hard to argue with the four winners – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bench and Koufax. Certainly the sight of the four walking arm in arm onto the field, and Koufax tossing the first pitch to Bench, was a stirring reminder of the Great Game’s rich history. But as important as it is to salute the past, every sport must constantly renew itself in order to remain relevant to each succeeding generation. Anyone who doubts baseball’s ability to do that must have stopped watching after that ceremonial first pitch. For when Koufax yielded the mound to current Dodger Zach Greinke and the 86th edition of the All-Star Game got underway, youth was finally and fully served.
The American League’s leadoff batter was the Angels’ Mike Trout. Just 23 years old, Trout was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2012 and its MVP last season. Against Greinke, who will take a streak of 35 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings into the second half, Trout laced a 1-2 pitch into the seats in right field to open the scoring. He rounded the bases probably not knowing that he was the first player to open the All-Star contest with a home run since the Reds’ Morgan did it in 1977. The blast also completed a remarkable cycle for Trout, who in four All-Star games has now singled, doubled, tripled and homered in his four first at-bats. Trout’s speed also helped keep the AL alive in the 5th inning, when they eventually added two more runs. For his efforts he was named the game’s MVP for the second year in a row.
But Trout wasn’t the only young star. Jacob deGrom of the Mets, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, came on in the 6th inning and needed just ten pitches to strike out the side. Orioles fans were rightly proud when 23-year old Manny Machado doubled home a pair of runs in the top of the 7th, including the eventual game winner in the 6-3 American League victory. In the bottom of the same frame Yankees setup man Dellin Betances took over the AL pitching duties. A two-time All-Star in just his second full season in the majors, Betances retired three of the four men he faced. Only the Cubs phenom, 23-year old Kris Bryant had any success against him, working a one out walk against the imposing 6 foot 9 inch hurler.
This year’s All-Star rosters included 20 players age 25 or younger, including Home Run Derby runner-up Joc Pederson, in addition to those noted above. There were also several more just over that mark, like the 27-year olds deGrom and Betances, and 29-year old Home Run Derby winner Todd Frazier. On Tuesday at Great American Ball Park on the banks of the Ohio River, the evening began with a reminder of the thrills that so many old-timers gave generations of fans. But long before the last batter was retired at this year’s All-Star Game, it was the kids who stole the show.