Friday, July 10, 2009

Random thoughts headed into ASB

All 30 major league teams head into their final series this weekend before most of the players get a welcome break from the daily grind of MLB.

The All-Star break, or “the break” in baseball vernacular, signifies a stoppage in activity in the summer’s 162-game drumbeat. For 66 players, supposedly the best in the game as certified by the fans (which right there makes it suspect), they’ll head to St. Louis and be part of what has become more media circus than game, with the actual All Star tilt becoming secondary to things like the Home Run Derby, media day, and many other activities brought to you by your favorite corporate sponsor.

The All-Star Break is often viewed by those not selected, as a chance to get away from the routine that consumes players’ lives for eight months of the year. It allows them to return home, particularly for players with families that may not live close to where they are stationed for the summer. Given that free agency has turned most players into well-compensated mercenaries with a glove and bat, it isn’t always the case that families move to this year’s city of choice, particularly if they have children in school.

It’s all part of the makeup of America’s pastime, in the early days of the 21st century.

Listening to last night’s Red Sox game, announcer Joe Castiglione mentioned between pitches that the Sox hurler on the hill, Brad Penny, “is headed home to Oklahoma during ‘The Break’ to visit family.”

The All-Star break provides a symbolic split in the 162-game campaign, if not an exactly even split between first and second halves of the season. A player, like a David Ortiz, who has struggled much of the first half (although he’s looked more like the “old” Ortiz of late inning fame, of late) can often redeem his season with a big second half. In fact, for those stat freaks out there, a group I’m happy to claim an affinity with, one can get a sense of what a players final stats will be. For instance, Albert Pujols, sitting on 31 homers with three more games before the All-Star game, has a legitimate chance to break the coveted 60-homer plateau.

Speaking of Ortiz, how about his recent rebirth at the plate? While I had some real concerns about one of the game’s good people, I wasn’t ready to kick him to the curb like so many fair weather fans that seem to make up a significant portion of the front runners that comprise RSN in 2009. Along with talk radio blowhards insisting that the Red Sox had to go out and get a left-handed bat, Ortiz had become a major topic on sports call-in shows, particularly when he had one home run at the end of May.

June saw him start to swat some big flies and after homering in back-to-back games the past two nights, his 11 home runs and 44 RBI (although his .224 BA is still well below his career average) are respectable enough and given a solid second half, will surpass Big Papi’s power numbers from last year (23, 89).

With his smallish frame, moppy hair, and boyish appearance, the Giants Tim Lincecum looks like he should be playing lead guitar in an emo band. Instead, he’s one of baseball’s top pitchers, and may qualify as having the “dirtiest” of stuff on the mound.

Last night, Lincecum toyed with a no-hitter, taking one into the seventh, before Tony Gwynne’s leadoff single ended the bid. Before the Padres were able to string together an offensive spurt knocking Lincecum from the game, the hard-throwing righty extended his scoreless streak to 29 innings, the third longest in the team’s history since moving to the west coast in 1958. Gaylord Perry owns the two longest streaks, 40 in 1967 and 39 in '70.

Lincecum, known as “the freak,” for his ability to throw in the high 90s, despite being a mere 5’11”, and weighing only 170 pounds, averages better than a strikeout an inning over his career, including 140 in his 129 innings thus far, in 2009.

I’m a late follower of Lincecum, partly due to his pitching primarily on the west coast. He caught my eye with a couple of double digit strikeout games back in April, and I’ve been following his starts on since.

Look for him to the NL starter on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, given the current one inning and out protocol (versus at least three innings in recent memory) for pitchers, including the starters, America will only get a glimpse of the “kid next door.”

Boston’s Tim Wakefield becomes the first knuckleballer to be selected for an All-Star game since the Texas Rangers’ Charlie Hough pitched in the 1986 contest. At 42, Wakefield is making his very first All-Star appearance, in his 17th season in the major leagues.

Anybody that follows the game and knows anything about Wakefield’s career can’t be anything but thrilled for him.

Back in 1994, on a trip to Niagara Falls, we stopped at Pilot Stadium in Buffalo, New York, to catch a AAA game between the Buffalo Bisons and the Nashville Sounds. Pitching that August night, with a record of 5-13, was a 27-year-old Tim Wakefield, in the minors, trying to regain his touch and find a way back to the bigs.

He would, as the Red Sox signed him in 1995, and he’s been as reliable as a favorite pair of shoes ever since. Whatever the Sox have asked him to do, Wakefield has delivered.

Continuing to defy the laws of physics, as well as stave off the ravages that come with age in a game for the younger set, Wakefield has set a career best of 11 wins at the All-Star break, warranting his selection by AL manager Joe Maddon.

But Maddon said Wakefield's selection was in part due to the career body of work from a pitcher who is his generation's master of the game's most vexing pitch.

"I just felt that getting him on the team was the right thing to do," Maddon said.

Only Hall of Famer Satchel Paige was older when he was named an All-Star for the first time — for the 1952 game held the day after his 46th birthday — but Paige wasn't eligible until he was 42, when he came to big leagues in 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

I’ve lost interest in the All-Star format the past few seasons, but I may just stay with this year’s game, if only to see Wakefield match his floater up against the NL’s best.

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