WASHINGTON – Even amid the show, as Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper highlighted all that is good in baseball right now and a record 10 home runs blew through Nationals Park, the looming clash over where the game is headed is clearly visible.
Too much data. Defensive shifts. Pace of play. The spike in strikeouts and the corresponding drop in batting average. The lack of action in the three true-outcome game. A league-wide decline in attendance.
The potential flash points between owners and players are everywhere and that’s before players union chief Tony Clark threw a Molotov cocktail into the public discourse ahead of the American League’s wild 8-6, 10-inning win over National League in the 89th all-star game Tuesday night featuring a record 10 home runs Tuesday night, closed out by none other than Toronto Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ.
“What we experienced last off-season was a direct attack on free agency, which has been the bedrock of our economic system,” Clark said during the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual all-star luncheon. “And if that’s going to be different, then we have some very difficult decisions to make moving forward.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred, who followed Clark into the gathering, grimaced when told of his counterpart’s comments, beginning his rebuttal by saying, “direct attack connotes some sort of purposeful behaviour.”
“The only purposeful behaviour that took place in the free-agent market last year is that our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions as to what they thought those players were worth,” Manfred continued. “If you look back and have been watching very carefully, at the end of the year you’ll look at the performance of those players and I’m pretty sure, based on what’s already in the books, you’re going to make the judgement that the clubs made sound decisions.”
He also suggested the union was grandstanding when it filed a grievance into the use of revenue-sharing money by the Rays, Marlins, Athletics and Pirates and added that Clark hasn’t responded to a pair of meeting requests.
So, the sides aren’t exactly sharing the spirit of co-operation and trust needed for the big discussion on where baseball is headed, and where it should go, a conversation both say is urgently needed. The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021 so there’s plenty of time, but the bellicose rhetoric harkens back to the decades of labour strife that preceded the era of prosperity that began when a strike was averted in the summer of 2002.
“Our players are engaged, our players have concerns, our players are very passionate about the rights they have, they are very passionate about their respect for the game, they are very committed to competing and playing at the highest level possible from start to finish,” said Clark. “To the extent there are challenges to those rights, historically I would suggest those have manifested themselves a particular way. I remain hopeful and I remain positive that as the lines of communication remain open, we can continue to move forward.”
In the meantime, baseball can be great with transcendent stars like Judge, the 6-7, 285-pound freak of nature who combines the brute power of an NFL linebacker with the athleticism of an NBA star to dazzle on the diamond; Trout, the all-world superstar in the midst of one of the game’s greatest seasons all-time; and Harper, who’s brooded his way through a difficult campaign but can captivate a crowd like few others, as he showed in winning Monday’s awe-inducing Home Run Derby.
Trout, continuing to demonstrate the absurdity of arguing that there’s anyone better than him, hit his second career all-star game home run, a third-inning rocket off a Jacob deGrom sinker. He also worked a first-inning walk off the other-worldly Max Scherzer, fouling off fastballs at 96.7 and 98.5 m.p.h. before spitting on a slider for ball four.
“He’s the best at everything,” said Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, the Toronto native who went 1-for-3 with a solo shot off Happ in the 10th during his sixth all-star appearance and made a crucial error that led to a Jean Segura three-run shot in the eighth inning. “His only weakness, and it’s not really a weakness, his only average or above average tool is his arm and really, that’s nitpicking. He’s still throwing guys out, he still has an accurate arm. He’s the best hitter in the game, he’s in the conversation for the best baserunner, he plays centre field, he might win his first Gold Glove this year, he’s just clearly been the best for a long time and there’s never been a stretch of time where you’ve had doubts about that.
“There was a little bit of time where I thought I could be, maybe, the best hitter in the game. But then he came along and let me know, ‘So sorry about that, I’m the guy.’”
The one element Trout lacks is the interest or ambition to be the broad-appeal marketable face baseball so dearly needs, a role Judge, whose solo shot off Scherzer in the second opened the scoring, is perhaps more suited for with his megawatt smile and status in the Yankee hot house.
Harper, who struck out twice before the hometown crowd of 43,843, offers the wrestling-heel counterweight to the two all-American Golden Boys, his strut and attitude exactly what’s needed to keep things interesting on the field.
And then there’s Manny Machado, the longtime Orioles star who will get a chance to shine among the stars in Los Angeles as he’s set to be dealt to the Dodgers, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported. Sensing the moment, in the second inning he took a selfie with future teammate Matt Kemp at second base after the outfielder doubled.
“There’s a ton of personality in our game, and sometimes our sport gets a side-swipe at us, that we are this boring sport that methodically goes through the games,” said AL and Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “Yet if you allow the players to be themselves and you allow them to showcase themselves – this is the biggest showcase event, especially since the game competition side of it hasn’t mattered for a few years – you’re amazed what you find out about these guys.”
Like Harper, Machado is also a pending free agent and how their free agencies play out will, to some degree, help determine just how under attack the open market is.
As for the all-star game, all but one run scored via home run, eight of them solo drives plus Segura’s shot off Josh Hader on the pitch after Votto dropped his foul popper by the dugout rail in the eighth, and Scooter Gennett’s game-tying rocket off Edwin Diaz in the ninth.
Astros teammates Alex Bregman and George Springer went back-to-back off Ross Stripling to untie the game in the 10th before a Michael Brantley sac fly added on. Happ gave up the homer to Votto on his first pitch before retiring Christian Yelich, Charlie Blackmon and Lorenzo Cain for his first professional save, giving his first all-star experience an unexpected dream ending.
“That was awesome,” said Happ. “That was nerve-wracking for me out there. It was fun. What a great game, too, back and forth. You can’t think these things up, it’s just crazy. This game is awesome that way.”
The teams also combined for 20 hits against 25 strikeouts, delivering a Midsummer Classic that was, in so many ways, a microcosm of the game at the moment, its strengths, its flaws and its uncertain path forward.