It's that point in the baseball season when the teams take a momentary pause and the fans have their lone opportunity to demonstrate their infinitesimally small influence through the popularity contest known as the All Star Game. This year, the All Stars are playing in Detroit's vast Comerica Park, the home of the Tigers, who have a fairly distinguished baseball tradition punctuated by some abysmal stretches in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (The last All Star Game in Detroit, in 1971, featured 18 future Hall of Famers.) Detroit's current, young team (featuring Dmitri Young, pictured at left, and Rondell White, right) has improved greatly over recent years, but is still in fourth place.
The practical result of this location is that both teams will follow the meretricious American League rule authorizing the designated hitter, which was introduced in the early 1970s to pump up runs and excitement, and has marred the so-called "American pastime" ever since. It's thus likely that there may be a lot more runs and home runs this year, which is important because last year, the even more meretricious Commissioner of Baseball, a troglodyte named Bud Selig who allowed the steroids scandal to metasticize and simultaneously ran a decent baseball team (the Milwaukee Brewers) completely into the ground over the last two decades decided to tart things up yet again and award the winning All Star league home advantage in the World Series! The two events have nothing to do with each other, but Selig forced his brilliant idea upon the league and so what once was a showcase for the fans' favorites is now a win-or-else for the most popular and talented to ensure that their home teams, or at least the final pennant winners in their leagues don't suffer a disadvantage come October. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
My favorite NL team, the St. Louis Cardinals, who were humiliated in last fall's World Series, will have their Chauncey Gardineresque manager, Tony LaRussa, as manager of the NL team and six players in the game; three, OF Jim Edmonds, SS David Eckstein and 3B Scott Rolen were elected to start, though Rolen has a banged up arm and is bowing out. Three other players--1B (and one of the greatest players of all time) Albert Pujols, starting pitcher Chris Carpenter (who has a 13-4 record, and a 2.51 ERA), and closer Jason Isringhausen, have also been named to the team. Pujols actually will start at DH, given the National League team a necessary added burst of power. In general, the AL's starting team is loaded with better hitters, while the NL team has several of the top starting pitchers (future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens (who was lit up like a Times Square billboard last year), former Rookie-of-the Year Dontrelle Willis, Carpenter, Liván Hernández) in all of baseball, so it'll be interesting to see whether the pitching neutralizes the hitting.
At the break, the Cardinals are in first place with a 56-32 record, best both in the Central Division, one of the weakest in the major leagues, and in the entire National League. They lead their next closest rival, the Houston Astros, by 11.5 games, and are on track to win the NL pennant (so they need the NL to win this one). They have winning records both at home and on the road, and have gotten steady production from Pujols, who has a .332 average with 20 homers, 20 doubles and 69 RBIs, Edmonds (16 HRs and 51 RBIs), and OF Reggie Sanders (18 HRs and 44 RBIs), and even better starting pitching than last year. The new additions--Eckstein at SS and Grudzielanek at 2B have worked out well. In addition to Carpenter's outstanding consistency, starter Matt Morris is 10-2 with a 3.10 ERA and has given up far fewer HRs this season, and the three other starters (Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan) have been decent. Mulder sparkled early on, but has faded, while Suppan struggled and has steadily improved. Marquis, though a pitcher, is batting .392!
The other top teams in the NL are, surprisingly enough, the Washington Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, who weren't expected to be more than middling, and the San Diego Padres, who have coasted near the bottom for the last several years. The Nationals play in what is easily the toughest NL division--all five teams (Washington, Atlanta, Florida, Philadelphia, and the NY Mets) have .500 or better records and could either win outright or at least earn the Wild-Card berth into the playoffs if they can find a means to win regularly. Atlanta is always a threat, though they usually fizzle in the playoffs or Series, while Florida has twice won the big prize as a Wild Card team. Philadephia has a great lineup, and the Mets have Pedro Martínez (10-3, the most strikeouts in the league, a future Hall of Famer and larger than life personality) and many talented players, though their baserunning and dismal closing has doomed them repeatedly this season. Ultimately the Cardinals, who have fared only 7-8 versus this division, have to be ready to throw down come playoff time. Overall, I think they're the team to beat, because of their strong starting and closing pitching and their powerful lineup, especially if Rolen returns to form, but they will encounter a challenge from surging Houston and Chicago teams (led by Derrek Lee, pictured above right) in their division, and in the playoffs, from the East has to offer.
In the AL, I have tended to root for the New York Yankees, the corporate behemoths (and for a brief moment, "America's Team") who've won the most World Series and AL pennants of any team (the Cardinals are second in the first category), and who have been on a rollercoaster ride all season. Way down, zooming up, plummeting, soaring, and now they're steadily rising again, having moved from last place in the AL East to end up just 2 games behind their division's leaders, last year's World Series Champions, the Boston Red Sux. (I loathe this team for multiple reasons). The Boston team has supplanted front-runner Baltimore, and the Yankees, who have struggled with consistent starting pitching, seem to find the pieces falling into place. They do have the largest payroll in the major leagues, though, and usually are expected to win, especially by their deranged owner, the formerly convicted felon George Steinbrenner. I think the Red Sox have the talent to win the division and defeat the Yankees in the playoffs, but both teams have some serious question marks, and the best AL team all season has been the Chicago White Sox--yes, the Chicago White Sox--who have a new manager, former SS Ozzie Guillén, and dazzling starting pitching. In fact, two of the White Sox's starters, Mark Buehrle (10-2) and Jon Garland (13-4) are in the All Star game. Like the Yankees, they're in a very competitive division, with perennial challengers Minnesota, and a clean young Cleveland squad that wants to win as well. In the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (???)--what was wrong with California Angels?--are again in first, but the Red Sux, Baltimore Orioles and Yankees all have winning records against West division teams, and the White Sox and Minnesota have better starting pitching, so I am ready to state that the AL West winner won't go all the way. I could be wrong, though. All in all, there's much more parity in the AL, with nine teams hovering between .600-.500 winning records, so the team with the best tools, most determination, and the craftiest manager will win the end. (That is, if George Steinbrenner doesn't just charge up some young miracle along the way.)
I'm looking forward to the second half of the season. I just hope the Cardinals can sustain their first-half pace. The Yankees are going to compete no matter what. They can't afford late season tailspins, though. It ought to be fun, just like the pressure-packed All Star game, which takes place tomorrow, without such regulars as future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. (at left), who is having one of his best seasons in many years. Play ball!