NEW YORK, Reuters
Three cheers for Ichiro.
Nobody cares who wins the All-Star Game anymore, and Tuesday’s midseason showcase of baseball’s best may bring out the worst in some as a few players, two New York managers and a lot of Seattle fans cope with some simmering resentments.
Thank goodness everybody loves Ichiro.
Ichiro Suzuki was the fans’ top All-Star choice, receiving 3.3 million votes in his first year in Major League Baseball.
The 27-year-old Japanese right fielder earned his spot in his rookie season in America, leading off the Seattle Mariners lineup that has a major league-leading record of 63-24 at the midsummer break.
Ichiro also leads the majors in hits with 134, is tied for the lead in stolen bases with 28 and leads the American League in runs scored with 76. He is tied with Cleveland’s Juan Gonzalez for second in the A.L. in batting average at .347 behind another Indian All-Star, Roberto Alomar (.358).
Ichiro has seven fellow Mariner All-Stars for a total not equalled from one team since 1960, when the Pittsburgh Pirates also had eight.
Among them are his countryman Kazuhiro Sasaki, who shares the major league lead for saves with Yankee closer Mariano Rivera at 29.
It was partly thanks to Rivera that Seattle got up to eight players. Manager Joe Torre was ripped for naming seven of his Yankees to the squad with only six Mariners then aboard. But Torre replaced Rivera, who has an ailing ankle, with Seattle setup reliever Jeff Nelson.
Rivera pitched Sunday night, a day after the decision not to go to Seattle had been announced.”I’m not always comfortable when I stride on the ankle,” he said. “Some days are better than others, but the rest will help.”
Nelson had made no secret of his anger at being passed over by Torre last year, when he played for him on the Yankees, or again this year, after he joined the Mariners as a free agent.
The Nelson appointment made it Seattle 7-6 over New York in the All-Star count. Then Tampa Bay outfielder Greg Vaughn pulled out because of a strained hamstring and Torre named outfielder Mike Cameron as the eighth Mariner who will be introduced as an All-Star to the home fans at Safeco Field.
Like Torre, oft-embroiled Bobby Valentine of the Mets was accused of letting personal dislike outweigh objective merit when he omitted Florida Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd, who called him “a stupid manager” earlier this season.
The two had a conciliatory telephone conversation last week but that backfired when they gave different accounts of what Valentine had promised or not promised after he left Floyd off his first roster.
Eventually, like Torre, Valentine dropped one of his own players, pitcher Rick Reed, and added Floyd.
“I’m just going to enjoy it. Everything worked out,” said Floyd.”I wish everything had been a little different.”
“I’m not going to worry about the past,” Floyd claimed. Now he can use the US$16,000 worth of airplane tickets he said he bought after the infamous phone call.
Both managers, who earned the onerous duty of choosing reserves and pitchers by reaching last year’s World Series, had other decisions questioned, but Reed was the only player Valentine nominated from his own team. His catcher Mike Piazza was the top vote-getter in the National League.
Piazza has a fractured big toe on his left foot, but after playing as designated hitter in Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium — in one of the regular season interleague series that have diluted the league rivalry that used to drive All-Star Games — the Mets’ superstar expected to be catching in Seattle.
“With another day off I should be better for Tuesday,” Piazza said.”I look forward to playing. I expect to start.”
That means he could face probable A.L. starter Roger Clemens for the first time since the Yankee hurler scooped up a piece of Piazza’s splintered bat and threw it near him in Game Two of last year’s World Series.
Both have tried to downplay any lingering bad blood from the incident, but it will be on everyone’s mind if Clemens toes the rubber with Piazza in the batter’s box.
Seattle fans may take time out from their exuberant celebration of the home team to boo two players who left.
Public enemy number one is Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who left the Mariners for a quarter of a billion dollars.
Seattle fans with longer memories may also tell probable N.L. starter Randy Johnson, the intimidating left-hander now with Arizona, they have not forgotten how he deserted them in 1998, to be followed by Ken Griffey Jr two years later.
Griffey, now a Cincinnati Red, will not be in town. Like the Red Sox’s two-time defending Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez and St Louis home run king Mark McGwire, Griffey’s season has been marred by injury.
Another big name, N.L. earned run average leader Greg Maddux (2.41) asked to be excused, suggesting that fellow Atlanta Brave John Burkett, second in ERA at 2.49, go instead.
But two of baseball’s all-time biggest names will be on hand.
Baltimore iron man Cal Ripken was voted an A.L. starter for his 19th and final All-Star appointment. San Diego hit man Tony Gwynn will be a special non-playing guest of the N.L. team. Both are retiring after this season.