All-Star Game

Denver artist Kaylee Bender works on her portrait showing Hank Aaron as both a 17-year-old prospect from Mobile, Alabama, and ultimately the Home Run King of the MLB. The painting was painted live during All-Star Week and given to Aaron’s widow, Billye Aaron, in a pre-game ceremony honoring Hammering Hank Tuesday night at Coors Field. Oh, and by the way, Aaron started his career in the Negro Leagues in 1951 with the Indianapolis Clowns. (Photo by Owen Perkins/Telluride Daily Planet)

They called Coors Field an aberration in 1998. When the national press descended on Denver for a 13-8 American League victory — the highest scoring All-Star Game ever — their conclusion was that baseball should be outlawed at altitude. Whatever it was, they said, it wasn’t baseball.

The elected starters averaged six All-Star appearances apiece, and 11 of the 18 players in the starting lineup are now in the Hall of Fame, with Walt Weiss the only starter making his ASG debut.

Tuesday’s full circle Midsummer Classic was a different story. Yes, the American League won again — for the eighth time in a row — but the score was a baseball-like 5-2. Nolan Arenado’s sixth All-Star Game gave him the third-longest tenure on a roster that averaged three appearances, and 10 of 19 starters — including the likes of Fernando Tatis Jr., (21) — were earning their first All-Star ticket.

It was an historic game on countless levels, and none of them were about altitude. The biggest story was Shohei Ohtani’s unprecedented role as both the starting pitcher and the designated hitter, and the MVP was Vladimir Guerro Jr., 22, the youngest MVP in All-Star history.

But at the risk of losing any baseball cred I may have accumulated since first covering the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore for the Daily Planet, I’d say the game was the least interesting part of this year’s All-Star Week.

BACK TO BASEBALL

It’s been just under a year since Major League Baseball came back from the pandemic to play a 60-game season without any fans. Perhaps the absence of paying fans made it easier for players to band together to cancel games in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in direct response to George Floyd’s murder and a summer where citizens risked their lives to protest for racial justice.

Whatever their motives, Major League Baseball has made most of the right moves in handling the simultaneous pandemics of COVID-19 and addressing racial justice. The staggering All-Star crowds at Coors Field may have induced a few panic attacks, but the experience of interacting joyfully in the outdoors was a breath of fresh air for the 49,184 fans cautiously soaking it in.

In the days building up to the game itself, MLB had community events featuring civil rights; social justice; a Pitch, Hit, and Run competition to spark enthusiasm in local boys and girls; an All-Star Green Team urban gardening volunteer effort to combat climate change; an event with Hall of Famer Andre Dawson coaching special needs kids from the National Sports Center for the Disabled and Special Olympics Colorado; and — perhaps my personal highlight — an intensive clinic for underserved kids in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood taught by over a dozen MLB player alums through the Players Alliance, a racial justice initiative launched last year in reactions to George Floyd’s murder.

Commissioner Rob Manfred said baseball must “demonstrate our values” when he pulled the game from Georgia over the new voter-suppression laws back in April, citing baseball’s unwavering commitment to fair access to voting for all people. MLB may be unwavering, but they’ve also been relatively silent since awarding the game to Colorado a few days later, so it was worth poking Commissioner Rob Manfred on the subject when I caught up with him at Sonny Lawson Field in Five Points during the clinic.

“The alliance was really a spontaneous movement,” Manfred told me, hours before announcing a $100 million commitment to the project over a 10-year period. “(Former players) Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson and CC Sabathia felt that there was a need for a voice for the players to engage with our game and help grow the game. It's important in terms of the relationship with our players, current and former, that we work together on something we can all support.”

Future Hall of Famer Sabathia (251 wins and 3,093 strikeouts over 19 seasons) — who had been working hands-on in a pitching drill, teaching kids the grip for a four-seam fastball by meticulously placing each kids’ fingers on the stitches — took a few minutes while the young kids were hustling from one drill to another to tell me how the project had quickly evolved.

“It's played out a lot better than I expected,” Sabathia said. “You didn't know what to envision, how to start this thing 18 months ago, but the participation that we've gotten from former and current players has been amazing. To see what we've been able to do in such a short amount of time gives me hope for the future for us.”

Former All-Star and current baseball analyst Harold Reynolds seemed to be at every possible pop-up clinic in town, and at the week’s first public event last Thursday, he made a point about baseball’s obligation to stand up to voter suppression in Georgia and elsewhere.

“He made a bold move, because it was so early, and he didn't have the time to ramp up because you got to get the event ready,” Reynolds told me. “Had we waited, you would have seen that a lot of players were not going to be participating, and then you force their teammates into that and the conversation isn’t, ‘Congratulations on making an All-Star Game,’ it becomes, ‘Are you going to the All-Star game?’ and ‘Why are you? Why are you not?’ He did what he needed to do.”

NOW MORE THAN EVER

Since last summer, there hasn’t been much chance of stifling the speech of players and those associated with the game, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendricks was loud and clear in his assertion that baseball needed the model of the Negro Leagues players now more than ever. He called the players from the Negro Leagues the first sports activists while talking at the opening of a traveling exhibit of contemporary art inspired by the historic leagues.

“We are a social justice and civil rights institution, it's just through the lens of baseball,” Kendrick told me. “That is an aspect of my journey as a Black person that you also need to understand and experience. I don't want the only images of me to be the downtrodden side of my journey towards citizenship in this country. You're seeing me in slavery. You've seen the water hoses sprayed on me, the police dogs, the police brutality that sadly continues to manifest itself to this day. Very few people can relate to those struggles, but you can relate to my success stories. The story of the Negro Leagues is one of those great American success stories. Those stories have never been touted in the way that they should be.”

Oh, and by the way those who say Ohtani is the first two-way successful player — starting pitcher and everyday hitter — in the Major Leagues since Babe Ruth? Don’t forget that MLB declared all seven Negro Leagues as official Major Leagues last December, with all the players and statistics to be entered into the record books. So don’t overlook players like “Double Duty” Ratcliffe, who once caught a shoutout from Satchel Paige in the first game of a double-header, then took off his mask and toed the rubber to throw his own shutout in the second game of the double header.

Baseball players used to really be part of our communities — you’d run into them about town, and they’d work second jobs in the offseason. Mega salaries put up some artificial barriers, but players like Sabathia — who calls himself blessed to be able to show up in the community rather than “just throw money at stuff” — and former All-Star and World Series champion Derek Lee are bringing back the human element.

”People forget that athletes are human beings,” Lee told me when we caught up at the clinic on Sonny Lawson Field. “Yes, we're athletes, but we're human beings first, right? Same things that matter to you matter to us. We have families and things affect them, so they matter to us. Why should we not be able to speak up just because we're athletes? I think it's great they're taking a stance.”

Oh, and by the way, Sonny Lawson Field? That’s the field that was the first to host Negro Leagues games in Denver, and the field Jack Kerouac wrote about in “On the Road,” citied in the Daily Planet a year ago and remerging to complete the circle on the morning of the Home Run Derby.

“The strange young heroes, of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, Indian, were performing with utter seriousness,” Kerouac wrote, inspired by the purity of a neighborhood game. “They were just sandlot kids in uniform…innocent enough to play ball this way before all the families and girls of the neighborhood.”

If baseball is going to maintain its role as a metaphor for life, it can no longer be satisfied with mindless musings from its pastoral parks while history takes place outside the lines. It must be relevant. If it’s going to be a metaphor, it has to be a metaphor that matters.