No end to American League's dominance
The National League hasn't won an All-Star Game since 1996. Yes, it's indeed been a long drought for the Senior Circuit.
DETROIT -- Some trends in life, you never notice until the results come in from the latest 18-year study by a team of professors at M.I.T.
And then there's the All Star Game.
Our own little research project shows that there are some folks walking around the streets of America who can remember the last time the National League won an All-Star Game.
Matter of fact, there are still some living, breathing, active National League All-Stars themselves who even played in that game.
"Let's see," said John Smoltz on Tuesday night. "It was 1996. In Philadelphia. Right?"
|“||There can't be any trash talking from us. That's for sure. I'm gong to see a couple of those guys in the offseason, and I'm sure they're going to wear me out. ”|
|— Braves pitcher John Smoltz|
Right he is. And now he'll take All-Star Trivia for 400, Alec.
Well, maybe to some people, 1996 isn't that long ago. But then again, it was still during the first Clinton administration. And "Caroline in the City" was still considered an actual TV hit. And among the people still playing baseball were Mel Hall, Chris Sabo and the unforgettable Joe Klink.
So while 1996 wouldn't be ancient history compared with, say, the Ming Dynasty, let's put it in perspective this way:
The last time the National League won an All Star Game, the Yankees were still looking for their first World Series title since the days of Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin.
And now here we are, nine All Star epics later. And that ruthless American League was still rampaging along Tuesday night in Detroit -- stampeding out to a 7-0 lead and then hanging on to win, 7-5, in a game that never seemed anywhere near that close.
So that makes eight wins in the last nine All Star Games for the old AL, plus one tie that still causes the commissioner of baseball to wake up in the middle of the night, trying to figure out what went amiss.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is some serious domination.
"You know what? There's no big story here," said perennial Royals All-Star Mike Sweeney, a man who has now been a five-time American League All-Star without ever experiencing the agony of an All-Star defeat. "It's just one game.
"I'm sure," Sweeney theorized, "that when our kids get to be as old as us, there will be a streak where the National League wins eight in a row, too. That's just how this game goes."
Well, not exactly.
Only once in All Star history has one league gone undefeated against the other league for this long. And that was more than two decades ago (from 1972-1982), when the National League won 11 games in a row in the heyday of Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench and Wilver D. Stargell.
But now it's the American League that's in charge here. And even though there's been a slight change in personnel since the likes of Albert Belle, Joe Carter and Wade Boggs started this streak, this game is turning out to be more predictable than "Alias." No matter what kind of twists and turns they throw at us, we know who wins in the end.
At this point, there's only one thing more painful than watching the National League go careening to yet one more defeat.
And that, of course, is listening to them try to explain this disaster.
"I think it's just one of those things," said Arizona's Luis Gonzalez, a five-time All-Star who still has zero wins on his ledger sheet. "You look at the past, and you can't figure it out. But that's just how baseball is. Look at all the wild-card teams that have won the World Series. Sometimes the best team in baseball doesn't win. I really think that's all it is. It's just the way it turns out every year."
Your key phrase in that analysis, by the way, would be the final two words:
Right. It's just one of those flukes of life -- which just happens to repeat itself, year after year after year. After year after year after year after year.
So with that theory rattling around our cranium, we turned next to the always-thoughtful Smoltz, who has now been through seven of these All Star Games (and won once). Thanks to this particular game, he has even been a losing pitcher in All Star Games spaced 16 years apart (1989 and 2005) -- a feat never before duplicated.
Asked if this made any sense to him, Smoltz replied: "It doesn't. I'll tell you why. It would make more sense if we played this game like a normal game, if it was set up where Rocket (Roger Clemens) started and pitched six innings and then handed it over to the set-up men and the closer. If we played it like that and we kept losing, then you'd scratch your head and say, 'What's going on?' "
But if it's just going to be played like a big Meet the Rosters festival, as NL manager Tony La Russa played it Tuesday night, then it can't possibly have much rhyme, much reason or much of a rational common thread, Smoltz said.
That's his theory, and he's sticking to it.
Oh, there is some truth to that, obviously. Eight different men have managed the National League over these last nine All-Star Games. And we count 15 different guys who have played in this game for both leagues since this streak kicked off.
Just the list of pitchers who have bounced between leagues in that span -- a group that would include names like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Clemens -- would seemingly have evened things out at some point.
But those déjà vu evenings in All-Star Land just keep on coming, no matter who wears what uniform. So there's a powerful force at work in there someplace.
"There is one thing I've noticed," Sweeney said. "I've been in five All-Star Games. And in every single one, in the ninth inning, Mariano Rivera marches out there and shuts the door. That's been the constant."
Sure enough. It stayed just as constant Tuesday, too. Rivera appeared out of the rain and the mist to pound the final nail in this one, after Bob Wickman and B.J. Ryan were helpful enough to create a save opportunity for him with a two-run ninth.
But if you've lost track, that still makes 20 consecutive All-Star innings that have ended without the National League holding a lead -- dating back to the still-incomprehensible moment when Eric Gagne blew an eighth-inning lead in the 2003 game by giving up a game-winning two-run homer to Texas rookie Hank Blalock.
In a season, naturally, in which Gagne blew no other saves.
Then last year, Roger Clemens stomped out any shot at a repeat of that drama by serving up six runs in the first inning. And this year, it was Smoltz, Roy Oswalt and Livan Hernandez -- three guys with combined records of 33-15 -- who turned a 0-0 game into a 5-0 AL lead in a span of just 15 hitters in the second, third and fourth innings.
No telling how many American TV sets were being switched to "Rodney" at that point.
Then, after an intermission for a 1-2-3 fifth inning from Clemens, the switch-hitting Mark Teixeira -- a man who hadn't homered righthanded in 284 days -- homered (yessiree) righthanded off Dontrelle Willis.
And with the AL up a touchdown at that point -- and with Joe Nathan, Ryan, Wickman and The Great Mariano all eminently available in the old bullpen -- "I think we had a pretty good feeling we could hold that lead for three more innings," Nathan said.
Yep. Their lead was so big, and their vibe was so good, in fact, that even Kenny Rogers couldn't mess it up -- with a two-run seventh-inning boofest.
So when Rivera finished off Morgan Ensberg with a four-pitch whiff for the final out, the AL could start booking another set of Game 7 World Series hotel reservations -- for a third straight year.
Back when it was the National League that always won these things, there was no excess baggage attached, you'll recall. But nowadays, when teams get that home-field World Series advantage -- in an era when those teams with home field have won 16 of the last 19 titles and eight straight Game 7's -- it doesn't seem like such harmless fun.
So the NL clubhouse was full of guys complaining about having the All-Star Game decide something this important. But you'll be amazed to learn that a few occupants of that AL locker room were beginning to think their good friend, the commish, had a tremendous idea on this front.
"Hey, we dig it," Nathan laughed. "We like that it counts -- so far."
Smoltz, the resident NL philosopher, dismissed the whole home-field-disadvantage angle as being "all psychological" and "not a life-or-death situation." What was real trouble, he hinted, was that this meant one more year of having to listen to all that grief he was about to get from his pals in the other league.
"There can't be any trash talking from us," Smoltz said. "That's for sure. I'm gong to see a couple of those guys in the offseason, and I'm sure they're going to wear me out."
He specifically mentioned Jason Varitek, who somehow beat out a swinging-bunt single off him. But if it makes Smoltz feel better, Varitek promised to behave.
"I would never do much trash-talking to Mr. Smoltz," he deadpanned. "He's done too much in his career. He's a special guy."
We then polled a half-dozen other American Leaguers. And every one of them seemed stunned by the insinuation this was any kind of excuse to talk any trash whatsoever.
"Never," Sweeney said. "No way."
"I'm sure as soon as we start talking trash, this trend is going to turn," Teixeira said. "So I'm going to keep my mouth shut."
"I don't think the subject will come up once," said Rangers shortstop Michael Young, "until the World Series starts."
Oof. Did he say, "World Series?" Thought so. But we promise -- just as they promise -- not to feed any more All-Star Game trends through our computer between now and then or make any more of this than it is.
But come October, it'll be time to cue the videotape of Miguel Tejada's game-turning homer off Smoltz. And time to remind you all just what that meant. And maybe even time to suggest that, at this point, the American League could probably win the next six All-Star Games even if it pitched Chris Berman, Mike Trico and Linda Cohn.
Or you could repeat after us: It's just one of those things that happens in baseball.
Year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.