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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Being at Baseball's Mid-Summer Classic

When a professional sports All-Star Game comes to a city near you, you get excited.

Especially when it's Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, the best of all the professional sports All-Star Games. Baseball's Mid-Summer Classic is hands down better than the exhibition streetball game put on by the NBA, the oft-changed competition stylings of the NHL midseason classic and the joke that is the "come-if-you-want" NFL Pro Bowl.

And while the attitudes of baseball's All-Star Game have changed over the years, the fact that the game features the best of the best and has tradition dating back to the first game in 1933 makes it a dynamic showcase.

In 1996, the game was in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, the first time the game had been held in Philly since the glorious Bicentennial year of '76. I had known since the game had been announced a few years earlier that I wanted to be there as working media for the game. And at the Observer, I filled out the necessary MLB paperwork to go to the game. And it was in the last week of May 1996 that I got my letter back telling me that I had a press pass for the two-day event.

Yes! Escape from the daily grind on the Observer second floor. Though I was going to shun two days of District 18 Little League baseball results, where would I have rather been for two days in early July 1996 -- Philly's Veterans Stadium hob-nobbing with baseball's best or taking scores over the phone from people who were trying their best to relay highlights of a game off a scorebook they didn't necessarily keep?

Yeah, the All-Star Game. I'll deal with the problems of District 18 when I get back into the office on Wednesday.

And so it was, Monday morning, July 8, 1996, I left Toms River at about 7:30 to get to Veterans Stadium for what was going to be a very, very long day. I arrived at about 9:30 and parked in an alternate lot not far from walking distance of the Vet and where I'd have to go past the old Spectrum, which was about to have a new neighbor opening up in the First Union Center (that's what it was first called when it opened).

My job was simple -- well, to me it was simple. I was there to write three stories. One was a feature story of my choice, something of interest and of note. The second was to be a simple notebook on the festivities of the day, including the less-than-it-is-now-hyped-to-the-nauseating Home Run Derby.

The third story was a feature on Florida Marlins left-hander Al Leiter, who was an MLB All-Star for the first time ever. Leiter was from Ocean County, born and raised there. To those who didn't know who Al Leiter was before he became a standout pitcher for numerous baseball teams, Leiter was a star hurler for Central Regional High School in Bayville, and in his senior year in 1984, staked his reputation by striking out 32 Wall Crimson Knight hitters during a 14-inning game, an eventual 1-1 tie, then pitching Central to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Group III championship.

The New York Yankees liked him enough to take him in baseball's amateur draft that year and he toiled in the minor leagues for a number of years, while in the offseason, he was working for Sears in the Ocean County Mall (I can still hear some of the people claiming to have worked with him when I shopped at Sears in the late '80s).

As for my personal experiences with Al Leiter, there were, well, two. In 1987, I had a chance to interview him at Winkelmann's Restaurant in Lakewood as part of a retirement dinner for his high school baseball coach, Al Kunzman. I found myself midway through the interview having HIM ask ME questions. The other time I saw him, he was up in the football press box on Thanksgiving Saturday 1994 with his brother Kurt hanging out with longtime Central teacher, coach and all-around good guy Robin McAllister as McAllister was doing the PA for Central's football victory over Lacey that day.

That was it. That was what I was going into this Monday morning with recolletion-wise.

As I get to where the press credentials are handled, I see someone very familiar -- it's Bob Considine of the Asbury Park Press, who had worked with me at the Observer for a year. We picked up on things like we never lost time. Turns out he was at the All-Star Game to do a story since he had already done a feature on Leiter a few days earlier.

"Will the Little League people mind you being here?" he sheepishly asked me as I smiled.

"I hope not," I sarcastically answered back. "I'll be called on the carpet by them."

I found my seating spot for the All-Star Game in the press box, which was definitely not what I was used to for any Phillies game. They had put us further down the right-field line, so high up that I could only see birds flying around.

But it gave me a chance to think what feature story would I like to do for this day. And as I looked on the roster, it hit me -- there were 20 first-time All-Stars in this game.

For 1996, that was a lot. Boom! Had a feature story to ride with. So I spent a good amount of my morning and early afternoon hanging out with the National League All-Stars. A good amount of first-timers were within walking distance of me. I focused on the local first-timers, so I talked first with Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico. Then I ran into Mets center fielder Lance Johnson, who couldn't have been plucked from the sky, even if you tried, for being a starter for the game, and the more down-to-earth Mets catcher Todd Hundley.

They were gentlemanly, but I needed something much more outgoing than gentlemanly. Then I looked at the other All-Stars. Over by the couch, first-timers Chipper Jones and Pedro Martinez messing around, Martinez looking and acting like a kid in a candy store representing the Montreal Expos. And Eric Young was there. E.Y. -- the now mayor of "Souvenir City," a place he invented when doing highlights for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" after he retired -- was reppin' the Colorado Rockies and, like Martinez, was more than just happy to be there.

We ended up talking for a good 10 minutes. He was going to fill me up with quotes on being a first-time All-Star and talk about the night when Leiter threw his no-hitter against the Rockies and he was the last out of the game on a strikeout.

"Man, he was throwing harder as that game went on," Young recounted. "I think the last pitch he threw to me was about 99 (mph)."

Young is a native of New Brunswick and played at Rutgers University. My managing editor at the Observer, Chuck Tribblehorn, was a big baseball guy and a big Rutgers guy since he graduated from there. So he was into whatever EY did.

"Tell your boss I said 'Hi,' and thank him for his support," EY told me to tell Chuck at the end of the interview after I told him about my boss. I told Chuck a couple of days later. I don't think he believed he'd get that response.

What I also was doing was trying to get the veteran players' takes of their first time as All-Stars and mostly, what they went through at that time. Talked with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. All nice guys. Just not what I was looking for. I found what I was looking for from a retired player after I left the clubhouse. More on that later.

Finally, Al Leiter walks in and one of the first things he does is jostle and play-punch with Pedro Martinez.

"I'm happy for you that you made the All-Star team," Leiter playfully punches Martinez in the arm.

"No. I'm happy for YOU making the All-Star team," Martinez answered, punching Leiter in the arm back.

Believe it or not, even though we had talked twice in the previous nine years, Al Leiter remembered who I was. And for about 5-10 minutes, he spent the time just talking about his career, the no-hitter that night in Florida against the Rockies and making the All-Star Game in a city his family used to go to regularly on weekends for games.

He liked to be a part of this game, but he also knew that might not happen, depending on what Braves manager and NL skipper Bobby Cox had in mind.

"Basically, the fans come to the game just to see the pretty uniforms and colors all blend together," he said.

What Leiter said was right. It's not about one team winning over another necessarily. It's about seeing the superstars of the day competing in the All-Star Game and how well they play the game with one another when they don't have them as teammates during the season.

As I exited the NL clubhouse, I had still not gotten the definitive answer from a veteran on what it's like to be an All-Star. Everyone I talked to hemmed and hawed and were gentlemanly, but none of them gave me the response I think I wanted to hear.

Outside the NL clubhouse, I saw honorary captain Gary Carter. Now I grew up a Mets fan loving Gary Carter. He was the embodiment of how you play the game -- hard, no stops, no excuses. And I always knew him to be colorful and charming. So I figured I pose the question to him and his memory of being a first-time All-Star.

He went back to that game in 1975 representing the Expos at Milwaukee's County Stadium.

"Pete Rose was firing us up, giving us a speech, letting us know it was our duty to beat the American League," he said. "That was the reason why we were there -- to beat those guys. I understood right away what the All-Star Game was about."

Carter would play in 11 All-Star Games, earning MVP honors in 1981 when the game was in Cleveland and in 1984 with the game played in San Francisco.

To this day, I think about Gary Carter's answer and his openness about what the All-Star Game meant to him and that it should mean the same thing to the guys playing the game now the way it did for him over 30 years ago. And I think of the same outgoing nature he has while fighting for his life in south Florida.

I took a stroll down to the American League clubhouse. Where the NL clubhouse was filled with guys who were laughing, joking around and enjoying each other's company, the AL clubhouse was the complete opposite. There were guys in there who were just surly, unfriendly and fortunate enough to have the time of day for you.

Andy Pettitte was a first-time All-Star pitcher for the Yankees, in the middle of a big season. And while a guy like Eric Young or Al Leiter was excited about being a first-timer in this game, Pettitte's answers were short and all nice, but just gave you the impression that he "was here for some reason." Come to find out that was what Andy Pettitte was like all the time. Not the most outwardly excited fella on the planet.

None of the reporters wanted to be around Cleveland's Albert Belle, easily the surliest player in the league.

But in the middle of all this was the one shining beacon of pleasure in that AL clubhouse ... Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. Again, I can take this to my grave that no one I ever came across in my entire career was nicer or more a gentleman as Cal Ripken Jr. He was very open about his first All-Star Game appearance in 1983 in the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He told me about the awe he felt about meeting guys he played against and he grew up watching play. And he was also walking into a clubhouse with players who were dying to end the NL's dominance of them in the game.

Ripken had a walk as a reserve to starter Robin Yount in the AL's 13-3 bashing that ended the NL's 11-game winning streak.

At the end of our interview, I relayed a story from 1993 at Yankee Stadium when he was doing an interview on the field that pertained to closing in on Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak and most fans were leaning over the railing trying to get his attention and his autograph when one fan yelled out "Ripken, you bum! You'll never walk in Gehrig's shoes!" and Ripken winced hearing that.

He remembered that moment to my surprise. Then he told me a story of his own.

"We were in Fenway a year later," he said. "And I'm playing short and I'm hearing someone from the stands yelling, 'I am the ghost of Lou Gehrig coming here to haunt you!' And this was going on for a few innings. Finally around the sixth inning, this guy starts doing his whole 'I am the ghost of Lou Gehrig' thing and I finally caught a glimpse of him. He gave me a look as if to say, 'OK, you got me.'"

Rarely in this business do you get to trade stories, so I treasure that one this amazing man told me.

I had pretty much gotten what I wanted for my two feature stories, so I headed back upstairs to start writing these stories on the old handy-dandy Radio Shack Tandys we used. The notebook was going to be last. In the middle of writing these stories in the mid-afternoon, I was peaking out at the Home Run Derby. Yes, there was a time when the Home Run Derby was held in mid-afternoon.

For the record, it came down to Barry Bonds against Mark McGwire and Bonds beat him in the final. How ironic those two men would become the all-time home run champions for a season within the next five years, McGwire breaking Roger Maris' record and Bonds beating McGwire's mark.

By late afternoon, all my features had been written and I was out of the ballpark by 6:30 p.m. and home by 8.

The next morning was a bit of the same as Monday. Except, this day was going to be longer. I got to the park about 10:30 this time and pretty much mulled around the entire day looking for a feature to write about.

Oh, and there was the ballgame that night, too.

I had taken a couple of copies of the sports section with me. One of the most striking things about it was Leiter's picture as a Florida Marlin was sort of blurry. At this particular time, we were having problems reproducing our color, so pictures looked like they were in 3-D. As Al Leiter looked at the copy of the paper, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, "Nice printing."

"I know, I know," I said back, explaining the difficulties we had with our color photos on paper then. "I don't print the stuff."

Late that afternoon, I was back in the AL clubhouse taking my chance to find some fodder for a notebook and I got the same surliness that I felt the day before. There just weren't many friendly faces in that locker room other than Cal Ripken, plain and simple.

And as I headed back upstairs, I can hear AL manager Mike Hargrove of the Cleveland Indians -- not exactly Mr. Warmth by any means -- say loud and clear while walking in front of me, "Damn media."

From that, I knew who was winning this game. The AL team was just wound up too tight like a drum and the NL squad was loosy-goosy.

At 5 p.m., word had gotten back upstairs to the press box that after the AL All-Star team picture, White Sox reliever Roberto Hernandez had slipped moving from his spot and he hit Ripken square in the nose, breaking it.

Just what I needed in the relaxing few hours before this game -- a broken nose by the man whose streak of 2,200-plus games was still going strong. At almost 6 p.m., another press conference was being called, this time having to do with Ripken's status for the game.

He addressed the media, telling us he was fine and that he would play, explaining what happened right after the picture had been taken. Hernandez, a big dude at 6-foot-5, slipped and was losing his footing and in the process, bopped the 6-4 Ripken in the nose.

"I can breathe properly," he let the media know. "I'm going to be all right."

"Are there any questions for Mr. Ripken," the PR guy for the game asked us. Those questions were asked and Ripken answered those well. Then someone asked him about the game. Between that and questions he had to answer about the similarities between himself and another first-time player in the game -- 20-year-old Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez -- he had enough with asking questions about the game.

"No more on the game," Ripken kindly replied, then joked, "This is the 'nose' press conference." The reporters chuckled. And that was the end of questions.

Game time finally. It was after 8 p.m. and both teams made their pre-game appearances on the baselines and suddenly moments later, there was a first pitch.

For the record, the National League won, 6-0, as Smoltz got the win and Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the MVP honors. And little did we know that it would be another 14 years before the NL would win again.

At the end of the game, Cox was emptying his bullpen with pitchers. For the last out of the game, he sent Leiter in to pitch to Seattle catcher Dann Wilson. Wilson popped out to complete the shutout.

The story was written as the game went on and I was able to send my story through a back-room phone set up for media members to send stories through the Tandy machine couplers. Boom! The story was finished by 11:35 p.m. I still needed to get downstairs and talk to players from the winning team for a future notebook or column.

Leiter was excited to get to finish it out. Again, a joy to be in the NL clubhouse. Braves closer Mark Wohlers, who was relieved by Leiter in that last-out scenario, did not take offense to his own manager taking him out of the game. Wohlers was a class act all the way through and was just excited to have been in this game. After all, how many Braves closers can say they closed out a Braves World Series championship? Only him the year before.

And when the post-game craziness had ended, I had a chance to speak to Bobby Cox for a few minutes. He could not have been any friendlier. I asked him if it were planned that Leiter, the Jersey Shore boy, was pitching last to close out the game.

"No, not really," Cox said. "Honestly, I didn't even know he was from here." Then with a wink and a smile, Cox continued, "If I had known, I probably would have started him."

For two days away from the office, I got to live out being a professional sports sportswriter for a major event that all of this country watched. By the next day, I was back in the office, catching up on whatever Little League games didn't get in the paper the previous two days.

And I didn't care. In the end, I got to say I did a Major League Baseball All-Star Game as a reporter.

It was well worth the wait.

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