An unlikely hero emerges to end an All-Star losing streak
By Tyler Kepner
If he could have scaled Mount Rainier to spread the message from on high, Rob Manfred surely would have. Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, had reason to celebrate his sport on Tuesday: attendance is up 8% over last season, with a brisker pace of play, more daring on the bases, improving television ratings and surprise contenders.
“What do they call it — a virtuous cycle, right?” Manfred said Tuesday afternoon, before the 93rd edition of the All-Star Game. “The rule changes are good, the players stay positive, it makes the fans even more positive about them because the players are positive about them. So it’s really been great for us.”
On one point, however, Manfred acknowledged that baseball had simply caught a break. The World Baseball Classic in March ended with a dream confrontation: the best player in the world, Shohei Ohtani, striking out his Los Angeles Angels teammate, the decorated Mike Trout, to win the tournament for Japan.
“Every once in a while, you get lucky,” Manfred conceded. “The culmination of Ohtani and Trout, you can’t plan that.”
A few hours later — with the right-field upper deck still bathed in the glorious sunshine of Seattle in the summer — baseball nearly got lucky again. A two-out walk in the bottom of the ninth inning brought Julio Rodríguez, the Mariners’ young centerpiece, to the plate with a chance to win the game.
Like everyone from Snohomish to Spokane, Rodríguez was thinking of a home run.
“Oh, definitely I was trying to win it, honestly,” he said. “Once I saw the guy getting to first, my thought was just get a good pitch to drive and let’s try to win this game.”
Alas, that pitch never came. As eager as he was to play hometown hero, Rodríguez took a walk. It set up an anticlimactic finish: Craig Kimbrel of the Philadelphia Phillies struck out the Cleveland Guardians’ José Ramírez, sealing the National League’s 3-2 victory over the American League.
It was the first NL win since 2012, but there was no postgame toast by the league president. That position was eliminated years ago, and league distinctions are all but extinct now, with all teams playing each other in the regular season.
“I don’t think they really pay too much attention to that anymore,” said the NL manager, Rob Thomson of the Phillies, referring to the end of the NL’s losing streak. “I think if you’re playing in a game, you want to win, but I don’t think there was much significance to that at all.”
The All-Star Game is mostly a chance to celebrate the sport and gawk at the feats of the majors’ best showmen. Indeed, the first two batters of the game, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman, smashed deep drives that turned into dashing, midair catches by outfielders from Cuba. Adolis García fought off the sun to rob Acuña in right, and Randy Arozarena — his former teammate in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system — soared to snag Freeman’s ball in the left field shadows.
“It’s my first time here at the All-Star Game, and I’m glad I shared the field with Adolis, who is my daughter’s godfather and my brother,” Arozarena, of the Tampa Bay Rays, said through a translator. “So it was fun.”
Arozarena — the runner-up to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in Monday’s home run derby — did his signature crossed-arms pose on the warning track after his catch. García, of the Texas Rangers, made another leaping grab at the warning track in the fourth.
“I have all the faith in the world in Adolis that he’s going to make those plays,” said the Rangers’ Jonah Heim, the starting AL catcher. “Usually when he jumps, he catches it.”
In the second inning, when Nathan Eovaldi pitched for the AL, Heim was one of six Rangers on the field at the same time. The only other teams to do that were the champion New York Yankees of 1939 and the star-crossed Brooklyn Dodgers of 1951.
“It’s truly special,” Heim said. “When you look around and you’ve got third, short, second, right and pitcher and catcher on the field at the All-Star Game, you can’t really beat that.”
The Atlanta Braves tried; their entire infield played together in the bottom of the fifth inning. That could have been a stirring visual, but for the third year in a row, MLB put the teams in generic Nike uniforms, making its best players look as indistinguishable as possible.
It was fitting, then, that Tuesday’s MVP was perhaps the most anonymous All-Star of all: Colorado Rockies catcher Elias Díaz, who pulled a two-run, go-ahead homer to left off the Baltimore Orioles’ Félix Bautista in the eighth.
Díaz, 32, signed with Colorado in 2020 after five undistinguished seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was the only representative for the last-place Rockies, but earned his way to the roster by hitting .277 with nine home runs and an upbeat outlook.
“It’s incredible,” Díaz said through a translator, when asked about his transformation from Pirates castoff to All-Star MVP. “When they let me go, I didn’t allow myself to feel defeated. I maintained my confidence and stayed positive. Now I’m just happy to be here.”
He did more than show up, leaving with a crystal bat named for Ted Williams, a prize that eluded all the headliners — including Ohtani, who struck out and walked in his two plate appearances.
Yes, Ohtani said, he did hear the crowd chanting “Come to Seattle” as he batted, a recruiting plea from the 47,159 paying fans who would love Ohtani to relocate as a free agent this offseason.
“Never experienced anything like that,” Ohtani said through a translator, adding later, “Every time I come here the fans are passionate, they’re really into the game. So it’s very impressive.”
Ohtani has spent offseasons in Seattle and said the city was beautiful. He would not say whether fellow All-Stars had made subtler pitches for him to be their teammate.
“I would like to keep that a secret,” he said.