Fifteen teams are sending just one representative to San Francisco for the All-Star Game: the Braves (Brian McCann), Marlins (Miguel Cabrera), Nationals (Dmitri Young), Cardinals (Albert Pujols), Pirates (Freddy Sanchez), Reds (Ken Griffey Jr.), Giants (Barry Bonds), Rockies (Matt Holliday), Blue Jays (Alex Rios), Orioles (Brian Roberts), Devil Rays (Carl Crawford), Royals (Gil Meche), White Sox (Bobby Jenks), A's (Dan Haren) and Rangers (Michael Young).
Some of those guys are superstars (Pujols, Griffey, Bonds), while others are rising stars (Cabrera, McCann, Holliday, Crawford). But some of the others fairly shout obligation. Do Michael Young's underwhelming numbers shout “midsummer classic” to you? Gil Meche has five wins — should he go to San Francisco for that? Does a punchless singles hitter like Freddy Sanchez really deserve an All-Star berth?
Yes, yes and yes. And I won't hear otherwise.
Why? Because of John Stearns. And Pat Zachry. And Joel Youngblood. And Lee Mazzilli.
I remember those players from my first plunge into Met fandom, which started when I was seven and was as all-encompassing and life-changing as anything you love to distraction when you're seven. Except having traded Tom Seaver away, the Mets were terrible. Embarrassingly terrible. Avert-your-eyes, bag-over-your-head terrible. A few thousand at Shea terrible. And growing up on the North Shore of Long Island as a Met fan, not surprisingly, was terrible too.
In the late 1970s, I made many, many bus rides to and from school and many, many circuits around the cul-de-sac where the kids of my neighborhood rode bikes. And from March through October, many of those bus rides and bike circuits were spent taking heaping portions of abuse for being a diehard fan of an irrelevant team. Most of my neighbors were Yankee fans, an allegiance they'd either come by honestly (if being soulless and evil can ever be arrived at honestly) or taken up because it was the easy thing to do. Up and down Miller Place I'd go, hearing the catcalls of sneering, braying junior Yankee fans. Mets suck. The Mets are so gay. How are the gay sucky Mets doing this year? Back and forth to school I'd go on the bus, tormented by the Steinbrenner Youth singing the version of “Meet the Mets” that was better known in our town than the real thing.
Beat the Mets, beat the Mets
Step right up and beat the Mets
Hit your kiddies with a bat
Guaranteed to want your money back
Because the Mets are really stinking this year
Fourteen behind and still acting queer
From Expos to Giants, everybody's comin' round
To beat the M-E-T-S Mets of New York town!
I wasn't stupid. I knew the Yankees spent money and had a good chance of winning their division every year. I knew the Mets were embarrassingly cheap and had no chance. I knew they and I would be disrespected for it from spring training to the fall, that nobody wanted Met cards, that Herman's Sporting Goods barely bothered stocking Mets caps, that everybody in Little League wanted to be on the Yankees and groaned when they had to be on the Mets. (I was a Dodger.) This was my lot in life, and I gloomily accepted it while reading about 1969 and 1973 and dreaming about years yet to come, when things would somehow be different.
I had one thing, once the hope of spring training faded and the reality of another dismal regular season set in: the All-Star Game. No matter how good the Yankees were, or how bad the Mets were, a Met would go to the All-Star Game. Unfortunately, when I was a kid the Met who usually went was John Stearns. Stearns would be the backup catcher, the just-in-case guy who never got to play. The Bad Dude went in '77 (Tom Seaver wore the colors of the Reds), '79 and '80. Between those three All-Star appearances he got one at-bat. And so it was for the Mets: Pat Zachry got tapped in '78 and didn't pitch. Joel Youngblood went in '81, after the strike, and went 0 for 1.
But that was OK. Because what mattered to me was all the silly stuff I now usually miss. Just hearing “from the New York Mets” and seeing John Stearns come out of the dugout to the tepid applause of some far-off place was enough. Why, he'd slap hands with Pete Rose and Johnny Bench and Dave Parker, then look up at the crowd and tug on the bill of his cap. He was a New York Met All-Star, one of the elect, on national TV like all the rest of them. It didn't matter that he was usually alone in orange and blue, or that Sparky Anderson or Tom Lasorda wouldn't find a place for him. By lining up with the rest of the National League's best he was proof that we mattered after all, no matter what the kids on Miller Place said.
And then there was 1979. Stearns went to the Kingdome and didn't play. But that year we somehow had two All-Stars. Lee Mazzilli, he of the basket catches and Italian good looks and Brooklyn roots, went too. And Maz did get to play. He led off the top of the eighth, pinch-hitting for Gary Matthews, whom the Mets had famously tried to recruit as a free agent by sending him a lowball offer via telegram. Facing Jim Kern, Maz cracked a home run to tie the game at 6-6. Then, in the top of the ninth, Mazzilli batted again. With the bases loaded. And on the mound was Ron Guidry … of the New York Yankees.
Ron Guidry. Louisiana Lightning. The year before, he'd won 25 games and the Cy Young Award. And for all that he seemed overshadowed by the Yankees' other stars, by Reggie and Thurman and Nettles and Randolph and Piniella and Gossage. We didn't face the Yankees, unless you counted the farcical Mayor's Trophy Game, which nobody did. But now we were. Tie game, bases loaded, the entire nation watching. It didn't count, but it sure as heck mattered.
And Maz, the New York Met, coaxed ball four from Guidry! He walked! In came what would prove to be the decisive run in a National League victory. I lay awake that night thinking happily of how tomorrow I'd get to see if the Yankee fans wanted to talk about how Ron Guidry had lost the All-Star Game to the young star of the Mets. I'd get to argue, perfectly plausibly, that Mazzilli should have been the MVP instead of Dave Parker. It wasn't a home run or a liner up the gap or even a clean single, but it had done the job. Guidry had thrown a complete game two days earlier and tired himself out warming up several times, but that was excuse-making. It wasn't winning the World Series, but I knew we weren't going to do that. Maz had beaten Guidry, and that was enough.
And so every time I hear that it's an anachronism for every team to be represented in the All-Star Game, I remember those summers and that night, and the only day I ever got to strut through the halls of my elementary school because I was a fan of the New York Mets. And I think, for once utterly without irony, “Won't someone please think of the children?”
There are young fans of the Nationals, Pirates, Royals, Orioles, Devil Rays and other downtrodden clubs who'll stay up to watch the All-Star Game tomorrow night. They're fans every bit as rabid as me and Greg and all of you reading. They pass the time memorizing stats and collecting cards and asking for replica jerseys for their birthdays. And mostly they spend their time dreaming — fantasizing about an impossible time when their love will be requited and their loyalty repaid. When their fandom won't hurt. When they won't feel their shoulders slump at the first brush of disdain and pity from those who root for winners.
Does John Maine deserve to go to the All-Star Game? Undoubtedly. Would I trade Freddy Sanchez's spot to right this wrong? No way. Because I have no doubt that a generation ago there were players who deserved an All-Star berth more than Stearns or Zachry or Youngblood or Mazzilli, and that the Sporting News or Baseball Digest or Dick Young said so. Not getting to see John Stearns tip his cap might have derailed me from the tough business of fandom, and I know there's a kid in Pittsburgh who feels the same way today. He reads about the We Are Family Pirates and wonders how the heck Sid Bream could have been safe and mourns how Barry Bonds got away. He daydreams about Jason Bay hitting the home run that secures the win for Ian Snell in Game 7 of some future World Series. And he's waiting — far too excited for his own good — for the Giants' PA announcer to introduce Freddy Sanchez, to see him in the Pirates' colors, to revel in the fact that for a few seconds he'll be standing by his lonesome at the center of the baseball world. Take that little ritual away, and you just might steal that moment that keeps him faithful amid all the middle-of-the-night fears that the game is rigged and his hopes are for nothing.
I needed that moment, and I got it. He deserves no less.