KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At Kauffman Stadium, 104.7 isn’t the frequency of a classic rock station. It’s the temperature.
Forget that you’re going to feel the way an apple turnover does after it’s been sitting under a heat lamp for too long. Forget that there are somehow two Chicago Cubs eligible to play in a contest that’s going to decide home-field advantage in the World Series. Forget that a retired manager is calling the shots in an All-Star dugout for just the third time since 1933. Forget that this same retired manager, Tony La Russa, might have an ax to grind with his old National League Central rivals.
Toss out all the hype and the subplots and the chutzpah. Let it go. When it comes to the 2012 Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night in muggy Missouri (MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET), only one thing really matters. The same thing that always matters when they whip out the bunting: Be it October or July, pitching rules.
Think about it for a second. The Fighting La Russas can toss Matt Cain’s angry slider at you one inning, followed by the fluttering knuckleball of R.A. Dickey, followed by the ghost pepper stuff of Aroldis Chapman.
Fast, slow, wicked fast, good night, drive home safe. You want a piece of that action?
As a fan, it promises to be more fun than dropping a box of ferrets down your uncle’s pants.
As a hitter, though, not so much.
“If you miss your pitch, you’re probably not going to get a hit,” Royals designated hitter Billy Butler said. “I mean, you’re going to have to hit their pitch.”
The Major League Baseball All-Star Game returns to Kansas City for the first time since 1973. A lot has changed in 39 years, but one thing hasn’t. It’s still a game of arms, where aces deal in spades.
The National League is seeking three wins in a row for the first time in 16 years, and history says streaks are made on the mound. Between 1972 and ’82, the Senior Circuit won 11 in a row; in eight of those tilts, the American League managed just three runs or fewer.
Between 1997 and 2009, the American League went 13 straight contests without a defeat. In seven of those games, the National League scored three runs or fewer. The Junior Circuit won six in a row from 1988-93; during that stretch, the National gang managed more than three runs just once.
La Russa won three of those games as the American League’s skipper, so he knows the drill. He also knows the stakes. His Cardinals won three of the four 2011 World Series games played at Busch Stadium, including the memorable Games 6 and 7 that cinched the championship. Last fall was the ninth straight time that a home team won a Game 7 in the World Series.
Mind you, given the importance of arms in this tilt, some of La Russa’s National League snubs start to look even more curious. Or petty, depending on which side of the Mississippi River you happen to sit. The Senior Circuit is loaded, and that’s without two of its best hurlers — Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke, a former Royal, and Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto — being invited to the party.
There’s history there, most of it unpleasant. Greinke’s Brewers got into several verbal scrapes with La Russa’s Cards last summer; before Game 1 of the 2011 NLCS, the Brewers ace accused St. Louis righty Chris Carpenter of having “a phony attitude.” When told of the comment, La Russa quickly rebuked it.
Cueto was at the epicenter of an ugly, heated Cardinals-Reds brawl in 2010, leading some — Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker chief among them — to wonder if La Russa was still harboring a grudge. During the skirmish, the Reds hurler kicked then-Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue in the head, causing a concussion that ended LaRue’s career.
“A snub like that looks bad,” Baker opined.
Darn straight. And it looked worse when La Russa tried to point the finger back at Baker for scheduling Cueto — who ended the first half with a 10-5 record and a 2.39 ERA — to pitch on Sunday, two days before the big game. Surely, the former Cards skipper was aware that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement has a “Sunday pitcher rule” that allows for an All-Star manager to pick a player who may not be able to participate, declare him an All-Star, even bring him into town, then replace him on the active roster with someone who actually can take the field as scheduled.
“I know the rule,” La Russa grumbled to local reporters.
That’s not water under this bridge. It’s bile.
Fortunately, there are sunnier storylines, too, once you sift through the muck. Texas skipper Ron Washington is the first African-American manager since Cito Gaston in 1993-94 to take charge of back-to-back Midsummer Classics, although his penchant for loading up on his own players — the Rangers will have eight representatives, more than any other club — raised a few eyebrows. Atlanta’s Chipper Jones will get a farewell All-Star lap before he rides off to the sunset. White Sox slugger Adam Dunn was hitting .160 with nine home runs at this time a year ago; now he’s in Kansas City, with 25 long balls under his belt, back on the big stage.
And yet the best narrative of all might belong to the Mets’ Dickey, a journeyman knuckleballer who’s crafting a career year in New York at age 37, winning 12 of his first 13 starts and allowing fewer than seven hits per nine innings of work. Many think he should’ve gotten the starting nod ahead of Cain, who’s 9-3 with 2.62 ERA and tossed a perfect game against Houston back on June 13.
Was it another LaRussa snub, or simply a strategic gambit? Maybe it had something to do with that wacky knuckler, the fact that the NL’s starting backstop, San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi that he’s never caught a floater like Dickey’s before. Ask Bob Uecker how much fun the butterfly pitch can be, even when you know what’s coming.
Hell, ask Butler how much fun it is when you don’t.
“I mean, there’s a reason that All-Star Games are not high-scoring games,” the big lug continued. “Because good pitching beats good hitting. Just because of that, it’s so hard to hit. Guys, with the stuff they have, they’re going to have success.”
Of course, if you’re La Russa, it’s a good problem to have. Elite arms are eternal; which side has the biggest guns is cyclical. At its late ‘90s peak, the American League trotted out Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez at the beginning and Mariano Rivera at the end. All are gone now, or soon will be. At the moment, youth and depth have swung back to the Senior Circuit.
Of the 13 pitchers tabbed by La Russa, 10 of the hurlers are 28 years old or younger. On the American League side, that total drops to six. The average age of an AL pitcher is 28.8; for the NL, it’s 27.1.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is 24. Washington wunderkind Stephen Strasburg is 23. Get a good, long look. After Tuesday, the sweat stains will go away. The kids, bless them, aren’t going anywhere.