Lead­ing OFF

Best play­ers still grace Mid­sum­mer Clas­sic stage

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Bob Night­en­gale Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

The All-Star Game doesn’t re­ally count for any­thing any­more.

The ex­per­i­ment of play­ing for home-field ad­van­tage in the World Se­ries is gone.

The idea of league pride dis­ap­peared with daily in­ter­league play, along with the con­stant shuf­fling of play­ers switch­ing teams and leagues.

Gone are the days when Bob Gib­son and Nolan Ryan re­fused to talk to hit­ters in their own Al­lS­tar club­house for fear they might get to like them and not drill them with a pitch when nec­es­sary.

Still, with so much tra­di­tion seep­ing out of the game, we still love the Mid­sum­mer Clas­sic, although con­sid­er­ing that we’ll be so far be­yond the sea­son’s half­way mark by July 17, we should change the nick­name to the 5/8th Clas­sic.

It looks like once again this will be our only chance on a na­tional stage to see Mike Trout, now seven full sea­sons into his ma­jor league ca­reer with seven All-Star nods to match.

This might be the last time see­ing lo­cal fa­vorites Bryce Harper and Manny Machado rep­re­sent­ing the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als and Bal­ti­more Ori­oles at the All-Star Game. Who knows, with the way trade talks with the Los An­ge­les Dodgers and oth­ers are start­ing to heat up for Machado, he might not even be an Ori­ole by next week.

There will be those who ar­gue that Harper doesn’t de­serve to be an All-Star for the sixth time, cit­ing his .218 bat­ting av­er­age and whop­ping 91 strike­outs. Yet he still has 21 homers and 50 RBI.

Be­sides, let’s re­mind ev­ery­one again, it is only an ex­hi­bi­tion game. It’s for sheer en­joy­ment. The game will be played in his ball­park. And it might be his last time in the spot­light for the Nats con­sid­er­ing their en- dur­ing first-half strug­gles.

Harper, who plans to par­tic­i­pate in the Home Run Derby, has no rea­son to apol­o­gize for play­ing in an ex­hi­bi­tion game in his home­town.

Re­ally, if we had our druthers, the All-Star Game should be ex­panded by one hon­orary spot for each team. A year ago in Mi­ami, Ichiro Suzuki should have been in the All-Star Game. This year, Al­bert Pu­jols of the Los An­ge­les An­gels and Adrian Bel­tre of the Texas Rangers would be ideal. They’re the most re­cent mem­bers of the 3,000hit club, they’re headed to Coop­er­stown, and who wouldn’t want to see them take their hacks in the All-Star Game?

Maybe see­ing Pu­jols at the All-Star Game for the first time since de­part­ing St. Louis would ease the pain of be­ing cheated out of a Max Scherzer-Justin Ver­lan­der matchup. The two for­mer Detroit Tigers team­mates and fu­ture Hall of Fame class­mates looked as if they were all lined up to start against each other. It changed when the Hous­ton Astros jug­gled their ro­ta­tion with Ver­lan­der now sched­uled to start July 15, the last day be­fore the break, keep­ing him from pitch­ing in the game.

“First and fore­most,” Ver­lan­der told Hous­ton re­porters, “it’s an ex­hi­bi­tion and team comes first. If I wasn’t pitch­ing on Sun­day right be­fore the break, it would be a dif­fer­ent story. I would love to pitch in the Al­lS­tar Game. It’s some­thing I’ve al­ways cher­ished and I would love to be a part of.”

Well, at least we’ll be able watch the ge­nius of Scherzer (11-5, 2.33 ERA, league-lead­ing 177 strike­outs). He’s the first per­son in base­ball his­tory to re­ceive a $210 mil­lion con­tract and be grossly un­der­paid.

The game, again, will be filled with feel-good and come­back sto­ries that cap­ti­vate our at­ten­tion.

Only in Hol­ly­wood could any­one imag­ine that Matt Kemp would be re­turn­ing to his first All-Star Game in six years, af­ter he was the long­est of shots to make the Dodgers’ open­ing-day ros­ter, let alone be their firsthalf MVP.

No All-Star shares Miles Miko­las’ itin­er­ary. He was op­tioned nine times, traded twice, re­leased once and spent the last three years in Ja­pan be­fore sign­ing a two-year, $15.5 mil­lion deal with the Car­di­nals.

Who would ever have be­lieved that Miko­las (9-3 record and 2.63 ERA) would be the pitcher com­ing from Ja­pan to be in his first All-Star Game, and not Sho­hei Oh­tani?

Still, even though we would have loved to see Oh­tani pitch, hit and par­tic­i­pate in the Home Run Derby, we’ll get to see Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers re­liever Josh Hader strike out ev­ery bat­ter he faces. We’ll en­joy New York Mets ace Ja­cob deGrom’s re­ac­tion watch­ing his team­mates fi­nally score runs for him.

And in a game that only con­tin­ues to skew younger, a pair of 21-year-old sec­ond base­men will de­mand our at­ten­tion. At­lanta Braves star Ozzie Al­bies pow­ered his way here with a star­tlingly po­tent first half.

Mean­while, Gley­ber Tor­res didn’t make his ma­jor league de­but un­til April 22. Talk about in­stant re­spect: His 15 homers and .905 on-base plus slug­ging (OPS) in­spired his AL peers to vote him onto the ros­ter.

The first All-Star Game in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal since 1969 might not pro­vide the same in­deli­ble mem­o­ries as the last time at Robert F. Kennedy Sta­dium. It was a time when 17 fu­ture Hall of Famers adorned the field, with Wil­lie McCovey home­r­ing twice for the Na­tional League in the vic­tory and Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors slug­ger Frank Howard de­light­ing the home­town crowd with a homer.

Con­sid­er­ing base­ball’s pu­trid of­fen­sive num­bers these days, just see­ing three con­sec­u­tive hits might be our spinet­in­gling mo­ment.

Times have changed. The Al­lS­tar Game doesn’t have nearly the same sig­nif­i­cance, but for all of the play­ers and fans who are there, it’s still a thrill that will never be for­got­ten.

And that will never change.


The Na­tion­als se­lected for the Na­tional League All-Star team are, from left, right fielder Bryce Harper, pitcher Max Scherzer and re­liever Sean Doolit­tle.

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