This annotated week in baseball history: July 12-July 18, 2009

Confession time: I’m not really all that bothered about the All-Star game. This is not a unique phenomenon, I’m aware, but I have to at least get it out there. I am a Yankees fan first, and nothing good can come from the game for the Yankees. Well, I suppose the St. Louis Arch could have fallen on Kevin Youkilis, but that’s not very sporting.

(As if to prove my point, Derek Jeter was beaned on the hand by Tim Lincecum, causing my heart to skip a beat.)

But just because I often find the All-Star Game to be as interesting as the 1806-1860 period of American history—those endless half-baked “solutions” to issues caused by slavery—doesn’t mean that the All-Star game doesn’t have some interesting history of its own.

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Mariano Rivera, the greatest All-Star closer ever (Icon/SMI)

For one, there is the proud of tradition of mediocre All-Stars. Sometimes this is the result of fan loyalty to a player, the rule requiring at least one player from each team to have a representative, or injury replacements filling in. In 1985, Terry Kennedy actually started the game for the National League All-Stars, despite sporting a nice .699 OPS, thanks to an injury to Gary Carter. This was the only All-Star game not started by Carter from 1981 through 1988.

In 1963 the National League started Julian Javier at second base, over choices like Rookie of the Year Pete Rose or sixth place MVP finisher Jim “Junior” Gilliam. The National League alone is not guilty of this, of course; in 1996 Cleveland’s Mike Hargrove gave Charles Nagy (11 wins, but a 3.53 ERA) the starting nod and then went to Chuck Finley (9-7, with a 4.95 ERA) followed by Roger Pavlik (11-2, 4.82). The trio gave up six runs in six innings and the American League lost, the last time they did so.

Of course, none of these can top Mike Williams in 2003, probably the worst All-Star selection ever. Williams was the Pirates’ obligatory representative, selected over Jason Kendall (hitting .308 at the break) or Jeff Suppan (9-4, 3.71). And inexplicably so, since although Williams had 25 saves, he recorded them with a 6.44 ERA.

So valuable did the Pirates consider their “All-Star” that they traded him—with cash!—to the Phillies for a 24-year-old in the middle of his second try at Double-A.

But there’s more than just players of not quite All-Star caliber seeing playing time. Some of these are simply oddities. For example, Rod Carew is one of the greatest second baseman to ever play. He was elected into the Hall of Fame as one, and received more than 425,000 votes for the All-Century team at that position.

Nonetheless, Carew is not the American League’s most frequent starter at second base. That honor belongs to another all-time great, Roberto Alomar. But Carew is the American League’s most frequent starter at first base, where he started seven times. That’s more than Lou Gehrig (five), Harmon Killebrew (three) or Frank Thomas (two).

First base is actually a weird position for the National League as well; the all-time starting leader there is Steve Garvey with nine. That’s more than Hall of Famers like Willie McCovey (four) and Orlando Cepeda (five, plus two in left field). Even Albert Pujols, maybe the greatest player of his era, can only claim three starts at first base to this point. (El Hombre has also started at left field and twice as the designated hitter.)

In fact, Garvey is the only Hall of Fame eligible player to lead his league in All-Star starts at his position who has not been elected. Mike Piazza—tied with Johnny Bench at 10—along with Ivan Rodriguez and Alomar are the remaining most frequent starters who are not yet in the Hall. Barring performance enhancing drug revelations, it seems likely all three will be in within a few years of appearing on the ballot.

Willie Jones—Puddin’ Head, to his friends—remains the only All-Star to come to the plate seven times in a single game. Unfortunately for Puddin’ Head, it was to no particular effect. He did manage a single in the thirteenth inning but that was after going hitless in his previous six at-bats, including hitting into a double-play.

The all time leader in plate appearances is Willie Mays who had 82. That is unlikely to be broken in the modern age of players leaving the game after a couple of times at bat. Mays averaged 3.4 plate appearances per game. By contrast Cal Ripken had just 2.9 and Robbie Alomar just 2.6.

Mays made more of his time in the All-Star game than Jones; he hit .307 and is the all time leader in runs, hits, triples, total bases and steals. For good measure he also won the MVP award in 1963 (1-for-3, two runs, two RBIs) and 1968 (1-for-4, scored the game’s only run).

There is no perfect equivalent to Mays among pitchers. Lefty Gomez, Don Drysdale and Robin Roberts all started five games. Gomez started five of the first six All-Star games, while Drysdale started both of the games held in 1959.

Gomez is the all-time leader in wins, with three, a record unlikely to be broken anytime soon. (For good measure, he also lost the 1938 game.) But Drysdale is the leader in innings pitched and strikeouts.

At last, we come to my favorite pitcher of all-time, the incomparable Mariano Rivera. In this year’s All-Star game Rivera set the All-Star record with four saves. He has never allowed an earned run in an All-Star game and only two pitchers (Mel Harder and Johnny Vander Meer) have pitched more innings. No pitcher has thrown more innings without allowing a walk, while only Roger Clemens has appeared in more games.

So perhaps the All-Star game is still not a compelling event—even when “This Time, It Counts!”—but it nonetheless can produce some compelling history. From Steve Garvey’s odd starts, Puddin’ Head Jones’ struggles and Mariano Rivera’s excellence, the All-Star game is capable of creating a history worth knowing.

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