LOS ANGELES — His main man Alejandro Kirk may have been behind the plate, but up 0-2 on Jeff McNeil and looking to strike out the side in the second inning, a mic’d up Alek Manoah instead asked John Smoltz up in the broadcast booth what to throw.
“Backfoot slider, down and low,” the Hall of Famer requested.
“Oh, you’re sexy,” replied the Toronto Blue Jays ace. “Here we go.”
McNeil ended up wearing the pitch on his front foot, Manoah had to sheepishly check that the New York Mets second baseman was fine (he was) and then gear up to get Ronald Acuna Jr., which he did, to cap one hell of a debut flex in the 92nd All-Star Game.
From start to finish it was the full Manoah experience — and there was no second-guessing Smoltz’s pitch-calling.
“No, no, not at all. That’s great content,” Manaoh said, with his trademark big smile in the bowels of Dodger Stadium midway through the American League’s 3-2 win over the National League on Tuesday night. “Supposed to be back foot, ended up front foot and whatever. It’s kind of who I am. Might strike you out, might hit you. You never know.”
The spectrum of possibility is what makes the 24-year-old one of the game’s most compelling young all-stars, part of a new generation with the swag and drip needed for a game long trapped by its traditional mores to become transcendent again.
Fittingly with the Midsummer Classic taking place in Hollywood’s backyard before a crowd of 52,518, the players let their guards down and cooed for the camera.
Standing in the on-deck circle before the game started, for instance, Shohei Ohtani promised “first pitch, first swing,” to Tom Verducci on the Fox Sports broadcast.
Stepping in against beloved Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, the cross-town Angels sensation was true to his word, lining a base hit up the middle.
“I was definitely swinging 100 per cent,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “Kershaw has really good command so I knew it was going to be right there, but I was going to swing at it regardless.”
Letting him know what’s up, Kershaw promptly picked Ohtani off at first base and it was on.
Interspersed within the levity was the consequence of Denzel Washington’s tribute to iconic trailblazer Jackie Robinson, a Happy Birthday wish to his widow Rachel from all the players led by Mookie Betts, and a salute to aging legends Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
A lot of pomp and circumstance done right.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was among the players leading the swarm around Pujols during Monday’s Home Run Derby won by Juan Soto and was excited to be among those celebrating him again Tuesday.
“I knew him even before I started talking,” Guerrero, who went 0-for-2 and made a strong play on an errant Tim Anderson relay to complete a 4-6-3 double play in the first, said of Pujols through interpreter Hector Lebron. “He’s like a father to me and always gave me great advice. It was an honour.”
Guerrero, at 23 already a two-time all-star, said he was “definitely way more relaxed,” compared to a year ago, when he was a focal point in Major League Baseball’s marketing of the event and won MVP honours in Denver. “I was just trying to enjoy the game even more than last year,” he added, “and I did.”
The same applied to Kirk, whose growing cult-hero status is such that when he stepped to the plate in the third inning, a group of fans started a “Let’s go, Kirky,” chant. He lined out to second that inning and then hit into a fielder’s choice in the fourth to finish his five innings of work 0-for-2.
“Very emotional,” Kirk said through Lebron. “I caught in the all-star game. It’s something I always dreamed of.”
That it happened so quickly for the 23-year-old is all the more remarkable.
Before the game, Manoah and Kirk discussed how a mere two years ago, they were at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site.
Yet there they were Tuesday night in Los Angeles, teaming up for the American League.
“It’s insane,” said Manoah, 24. “He went from high-A to the big-leagues after some time at the alt site. I was there as well. I went basically Vancouver (then, short-season A), triple-A and then here. We’ve both had a pretty crazy journey. Some long days at the alt site in Rochester, but pretty crazy for both of us to here now.”
Another similar conversation took place in the dugout, as Guerrero, Manoah, Kirk and Santiago Espinal, who said he was shaking with excitement before his first plate appearance as he went 0-for-1 with a walk, took another such pause.
“This is the second time for Vladdy,” said Espinal, “but us three, we were like, man, we’re actually here at the All-Star Game. It was an amazing moment for us.”
So too was getting to play up the middle with Xander Bogaerts and telling the Boston Red Sox shortstop that he’s one of his favourite players and taking the field together “was a dream come true.”
“It was crazy because he told me, ‘Look man, just keep playing hard, keep being you and don’t change,’” Espinal added.
Only Jordan Romano didn’t get into the game among the Blue Jays, the emergency arm who warmed in the ninth but wasn’t needed as Emmanuel Clase closed things out with relative ease.
That didn’t subtract from the experience for the closer from Markham, Ont., who made up for it in other ways.
“Just talking to (Liam) Hendricks, (Gregory) Soto, (Jorge) Lopez, some of the other guys, about process and how they deal with certain things, like some emotions and stuff, it’s pretty funny because we all feel the same way closing out games,” said Romano. “It’s really fun, but it’s also really stressful and it was just nice to see the best in the game have those same emotions, as well. Like, I wasn’t the only one. So that was nice to see and talk to the guys about.”
In that way Romano expects the experience to help springboard him to more success in the future and the same applies to his Blue Jays teammates, as well. They were all part of the show in La-La Land, it was a moment and a return to reality looms.