All-Star Game Day, July 13, 2004, Houston
Really, it could have been Christmas morning. That’s the kind of excitement Tuesday held. Laura played hooky from work and the three of us went to Buffalo Wild Wings for lunch. Joe Morgan was in the hotel lobby when she came in to get me, and she thought about getting a baseball for him to sign, then didn’t.
We rode the shuttle to the ballpark together, getting there around 3:30. I went down to the field and sat on the Astros bench in the dugout to relax and be ready for batting practice at 4 o’clock. Stark and Kurkjian stood at the railing and talked. A few all-stars came out and mingled. Mark Loretta talked with someone about teammate Phil Nevin: “If he likes you, he’ll do anything for you.” That came after a statement that held the opposite meaning, if you know what I mean.
Being 5-foot-7, I’m dwarfed on the field when the players come out. Most people are taller than me, so even the sports writers look down to me. So unless I can get to the front of the crowd, I don’t see much. So when, standing near the batting cage, I heard “Derek! Derek! Jeter!” coming from above the NL dugout behind me, I knew he was around. When I turned, two media members stepped aside and Derek Jeter came right at me. He obviously hadn’t seen me on the other side of the tall people. “Excuse me,” he said, then brushed past me and embraced Barry Larkin in a bear hug from behind.
Members of the shortstop brotherhood.
Mike Piazza came out of the dugout and walked out to the outfield behind second base. He said hello to Albert Pujols, then asked to see his first baseman’s mitt, trying it on.
I took some pictures of Jim Thome taking throws at first base, of Mike Lowell in the batting cage, of Bobby Abreu next to it.
After the NL batted, the players went out to centerfield for the team photo and I noticed Tommy Lasorda amid a sea of reporters. When the NL players came back in from the outfield, Piazza put his arm around Lasorda as the two talked.
The catcher and the godfather.
Fox had its pregame desk set up in foul territory down the first base line, and Jeanie Zelasko had her long blond hair done up all wavy and wore a brilliant pink jacket. She just seems to get more bimboed up each week.
In another case of someone seemingly following me, I turned around to see Roger Clemens coming off the field. It was like a train wherever he went: always followed by a trail of reporters and/or security. At one point, the script “Astros” was headed straight for my head. ESPN’s Chris Berman pulled him aside for a quick interview, and I headed down the steps into the dugout for a little bit.
Boomer and the Rocket.
I snapped a shot of Tom Glavine giving an interview and was heading up the steps when I heard the telltale cries from the fans above the dugout: “Mike! Mike!” Piazza was coming. I looked ahead of me, saw him coming toward the steps I was ascending, and backed down quickly, hoping to get a picture as he walked into the dugout. He was walking too fast, however, and I barely stepped to the side on the steps as he reached them. Looking up to the fans, he said, “Not now. I’ve got to go inside.” He gestured beneath the stands as he spoke, pointing downward, and nearly conked me in the head with his elbow as he did so.
This 75th All-Star Game is the second in the two-year experiment to give home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the midsummer exhibition game. Because baseball screwed up the concept so badly, coming to a climax with the 2002 tie in Milwaukee, they had to do something. I don’t think using the All-Star Game is the answer, but it is at least nice to see it treated like a meaningful game again. There’s no chance of it ever becoming meaningful again for the sake of league pride, so I guess this is the next best thing. What they should really do is have a monetary bonus for the winning players, a prize you only get if you actually play in the game. That would motivate them. It might cause some problems with players who aren’t used, but something could be worked out for them. If they were healthy and able to play, but didn’t, then they’d get a smaller, token bonus, but a guy like Schilling or Sean Casey, who were there and took part in just about everything else, wouldn’t because they couldn’t contribute. But the MLB slogan “This One Counts” seems a little ridiculous to me. It counts, but it doesn’t. The stats don’t count, the game result doesn’t count. Only the winner matters. And yet, as if to remind the players that they truly are playing for something, the bases not only carried the All-Star Game logo on top, but the “This One Counts” slogan on the four sides. Any player diving into a base on a pickoff attempt or an extra-base hit will see those words coming closer. I think it was Scott Rolen who was quoted in an article I read that said the All-Star Game wasn’t the right way to decide who gets homefield advantage. It shouldn’t be decided by 32 guys on either side, he said, suggesting interleague play be the determining factor. Let all 700 players decide it was his point.
Exhausted, I left the field and joined Laura and David in the stands to talk with them some more before leaving for the mezzanine. I staked out a spot in the front row, directly above the Astros bullpen mound, planning to take pictures of Clemens as he warmed up. It put me in the perfect spot to see Roger start his warmups by long-tossing with his bullpen catcher in the outfield. When Piazza wandered out from the dugout, Roger kept throwing with the bullpen catcher, so Mike put his mask and glove down and did some stretches. When he moved to the bullpen, Clemens brought his bullpen guy with him. Then Piazza went in and took two or three pitches before hopping on a bullpen cart for a quick trip back to the dugout for the player introductions. Ivan Rodriguez, meanwhile, remained in the AL bullpen throughout introductions warming up Mark Mulder. In listening to New York talk radio and some viewpoints from Houston and elsewhere since last Tuesday, Mike Piazza has come out of this whole “feud” with Clemens as the good guy. It was Clemens who hit him, Clemens who threw the bat, Clemens who used his own catcher to warm up for the All-Star Game. It was even Clemens who, in the midst of his worst first inning ever, who shook off Piazza’s pitch to throw a slider that Manny Ramirez sent into the left-field seats. I’ve since heard that the reason Piazza’s so pissed at Clemens is that somewhere during the past few years Clemens has made an insensitive and derogatory comment about Piazza and, well, his sexual preference.
The Rocket warms up.
When it comes to Clemens, I don’t blame him for signing with the Astros and I think the Yankee fans who whine and cry over his “betrayal” of the Yankees are whining for whining’s sake. How many players have the Yankees taken from their original teams, players the fans now despise for simply jumping at the money the Yankees can offer? Nowhere does it say that every potential Hall of Famer since 1990 has to play for the Yankees and retire a Yankee, but to hear some of the callers to New York talk radio, you’d think it was one of baseball’s new rules or trends, like the bereavement list or alternate jerseys. That being said, I’m not a big fan of Clemens. I’m in awe at what he’s done as a pitcher, but I don’t admire him the way I did Nolan Ryan. It was amusing to see Clemens get shelled by the AL in his home park, and I’ve always felt there was a difference in Clemens and a pitcher who throws inside. There’s throwing inside and there’s throwing at a batter’s head. A case can be made for the likes of Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson, notoriously aggressive headhunters, but at least those guys had to pay for it themselves by taking their turn at bat. Until this year, and with the exception of that one interleague game at Shea Stadium a couple of seasons ago, Clemens never had to pick up a bat and stand in the batter’s box.
I watched the game and kept score, not an easy task on a standard scoresheet (I used the one in the media guide) for an All-Star Game with so many changes. I still haven’t gone through it to make sure it’s accurate. My seat in the front row of the section nearly proved to be the perfect spot. When David Ortiz sent a rocket to right-center, I took a quick look and declared, “That’s coming up here.” It hit the front of the temporary table about 15 feet to my left, bounced back toward the field, then ricocheted off the railing and three rows up into the hands of another journalist. Within minutes, he’d taken several calls from friends and family who saw him on TV and then he went hunting for a clubhouse pass to borrow from another reporter (not all of us, myself included, had the Texas-shaped badge necessary for clubhouse access). “It’s his first all-star homer,” he said. “It’s right for me to keep it.”
After the sixth inning, my prediction came true when the roof began rolling back. I didn’t notice it at first, instead watching the stadium’s “Kiss-Cam” on the monitors in the press area. But when the Fox feed came back on, it was a wide shot of the field showing the growing opening. “Drayton loves the roof,” Laura told me earlier after we’d talked about the home run derby. “He’s got a button for it in his office.” I figured that if he was going to open it for the derby, he’d surely want to show it off during the game itself. Again, before the roof was 1/3 open, I felt the warmth from outside already, but also the breeze. If there was a breeze, it was bearable. Without the air circulating, it was stuffy. After the seventh inning, Laura called me to say that the people in the seats next to theirs had left, so I joined them for the last inning and a half, passing through the pleasantly air conditioned club level one last time.
When the game ended, we had no need to stick around for any post-game ceremonies, so we were among the first ones on the first shuttle. Our driver, a rotund black woman, enjoyed getting us to the hotel as quickly — yet safely, she assured us — as possible. She floored it through yellow lights at intersections and took any opportunity to change lanes when other drivers left the smallest opening. After one adept maneuver, she laughed heartily. “I think she’s cackling,” I said to Laura. My thought was confirmed when we made another yellow light, and some passengers closer to the front commented as well. “Don’t worry, honey,” the driver said, “I’ll get you there safe.”
Laura, David and I had a drink in the bar area and ordered a plate of nachos before, just after midnight, they left. As I headed up stairs with my beer, I saw Karl Ravesh with one of his own, just back from the ballpark. On the television, Chris Berman anchored the post-game edition of Baseball Tonight.
In the morning, I saw Harold Reynolds at the ATM and Berman at the front desk, then again out in the driveway asking the bellhop for a car to the airport. Berman left in a private car while I waited for the cheaper shuttle. I should’ve taken a cab myself, expensing it on the magazine, instead of waiting for the van, which then stopped at the Hilton and was packed, nine men and a woman sitting three to a bench seat for the half-hour drive north.
Waiting at gate E7, I saw Tom Gordon’s family come through and sit down in the waiting area, one of his sons holding the large dry-mounted placard with Tom’s name, left over from the media day, I guessed. Until I was told I was sitting in the wrong seat, it appeared that I would be flying home next to one of the Gordon boys, but instead I had the bulkhead on the aisle, two rows in front of Reynolds and his wife.
Back in Newark, I chatted with Reynolds at baggage claim after I noticed his wife carrying my magazine, then went outside to see two undercover cops putting hand cuffs on a man posing as a taxi driver. It’s one of the current concerns at airports: people who pose as drivers and offer to take passengers from the airport to their hotel for a fee around the same or cheaper than what a legitimate cab would cost. But when they get to your destination, they charge you much more than they quoted you and won’t give you your luggage from the trunk until you pay up.
So from Kenny Mayne as I entered the hotel to a conversation with Harold Reynolds and a sting operation in progress, it was nonstop excitement for five days. Next year, Detroit, if I can handle the heat in an open ballpark.
I think I’ll manage.