The All-Star Game is a largely meaningless spectacle. Gross commercialism and rampant arrogance - on the part of Major League Baseball, some of its stars, and many in sports media - define the made-for-television production.
But for the Phillies, the two days in St. Louis last week held real meaning and produced genuine enjoyment. Charlie Manuel, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, and Shane Victorino in particular savored memorable human experiences and ones that could help their team in the second half of the season.
And believe me, it ain't easy to find humanity in that circus. The icky coziness between the league and many who cover it was everywhere, from the moment Bob Costas - you know, that guy many people believe they can trust for intelligent, objective coverage - introduced commissioner Bud Selig at a news conference and patted him on the arm.
It continued when ESPN's Mike Greenberg, another ostensibly independent media figure, gushed from the same podium that the (Insurance Company) Home Run Derby "in the minds of many has become the highlight of the all-star festivities." Really, Mike? Don't you mean "most mind-numbingly boring sporting event in the history of the world"? Oh, I forgot. You work for the TV partner.
It was enough to make reasonable people throw up. And it wasn't much better when the players sat at individual podiums in a hotel ballroom, answering shouted questions from reporters who rushed from one guy to another, gathering quotes like crumbs tossed on the carpet. Now that's journalism. Many of the players had been here before and appeared to find little enjoyment in the process.
Albert Pujols, the St. Louis icon far more beloved by the fans who watch him from a safe distance than the people who are forced to deal with him every day, basked in the attention of television cameras and endorsements but later blew off reporters after losing the derby. Derek Jeter did his usual half-sardonic, half-passive-aggressive dance around questions.
Why bother complaining about all this? Because the appeal of athletics is raw emotion, and the all-star festivities attempt to replace that with bland commercialism. Unlike scripted movies or television shows, live sports allow us to see people in moments of devastation and elation, earnestly engaged in the process of trying to improve. Real emotion is more satisfying for the consumer than the empty calories offered by MLB and its sponsors last week. And you know where one could find real emotion in St. Louis? Anywhere Manuel, Victorino, Ibanez, and Werth went.
Hometown favorite Ryan Howard, who grew up in St. Louis, spent most of the time swarmed by reporters and cranky about it. Chase Utley displayed more of his dry wit than usual but was characteristically invisible after his podium appearance. These guys had been here before and seemed mostly unmoved and uninteresting.
But Manuel, managing his first All-Star Game at the age of 65, was proud of himself and the players he brought, and he used the event to manage his real team. Choosing Werth to replace injured New York Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran on the roster was a brilliant stroke. Werth is a sensitive guy in the middle of a crucial season. Manuel has said many times that the 30-year-old is auditioning this year to prove that he is an everyday player, and the manager had yet to offer an endorsement or say that it is going well.
When he selected Werth for the team, Manuel looked his rightfielder in the eye and said, "You're my guy."
"I know what's going on," Werth said at his podium on Monday, a deep happiness apparent in his face and relaxed shoulders. "That meant a lot."
Players such as San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval and Los Angeles' Matt Kemp had legitimate arguments for inclusion over Werth, but Manuel was thinking about something more important to the Phillies. He saw a chance to boost the player whose consistency is essential to the middle of the Phils' lineup, and the strategy worked.
Manuel seized a similar opportunity with Victorino, whose initial election to the team caused a weeklong lapse in the independent media, which allowed an MLB.com marketing campaign to become a news story. That silliness behind us, Manuel needed a centerfielder to start for Beltran. Why not Victorino?
Manuel announced his lineup shortly before the player availability on Monday. A stunned Victorino received a flood of text messages congratulating him and was still beaming in disbelief when he met with the media.
"I'm very thankful to have the manager on my side. It's one of those things. I guess he takes care of his guys," Victorino said.
Another young-ish, still-developing player had been won over by his manager, who deftly used the all-star roster to do his real job.
Ibanez did not need that type of encouragement, but he found a different sort of pleasure, walking around the field and clubhouse with his 7-year-old son R.J., who wore a miniature Phillies uniform. Family is more important to Ibanez than anything else, and he was thrilled to bring his children to the event.
He was also thrilled to make his first all-star appearance after a career spent in relative obscurity. Sitting in front of his locker after the game, Ibanez looked up with wide eyes and breathlessly said, "It was so cool."
There it was. A moment of genuine feeling. No matter how hard Major League Baseball tried to whitewash its own event, no matter how complicit the media were in this effort and how bland many of the stars made themselves, the power of sports could not be completely stifled.
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Blog response of the week
RE: Phillies sign Pedro Martinez to one-year deal
Posted by Bob1 12:58 p.m., 07/15/2009
I like this as long as he doesn't say that the Mets are his Daddy.EndText