Taking a break from politics: The All Star Game

Tuesday, baseball's All Star Game returns to our nation's capital for the first time since 1969.  That year, the game became a Wednesday matinee after monsoon-like rains washed out the prime-time spectacle.  That specific game holds a special place in my heart and soul because it was the genesis of my almost 50-year love affair with our nation's pastime.

The 1969 game was also special because it followed that the greatest scientific and technological achievement in American – indeed, in world – history: the rocketing of two men on the face of the moon.  Like Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Carl Yastrezmski, and Hank Aaron, Neil Armstrong, and "Buzz " Aldrin were heroes to many American boys and girls.

America and Americans celebrated proudly and patriotically the incredible journey and riveting landing on the moon's desolate surface.  It was bipartisan, too – American exceptionalism at its finest.

As far the game was concerned, well, it was exciting for me, though it ended the way most All Stars in the sixties did for the American League: a National League victory.  The A.L. was doomed from the beginning.  Detroit ace and 1968 MVP and Cy Young winner Denny McLain decided to return home in his private jet to see his dentist when the game was postponed Tuesday night.  Wednesday arrived, and McLain barely made it to the announcing of lineups and rosters.  New York Yankees pitcher Mel Stottlemyre started in his place and took it on the chin, absorbing the loss, allowing three runs in two innings of action.  The 9-3 pasting by the N.L. was done in workmanlike manner.  They scored one in the first inning in small ball fashion, two in the second as catcher Johnny Bench tattooed his first All Star homer, a two-run blast, and five runs in the third and one more in the fourth inning when Willie McCovey launched one of his two jacks into the stands.  "Stretch" McCovey would earn the MVP award for his effort.

The quick, surgical sortie bombs supplied by the N.L. sluggers was supported by the pitching of N.L. hurlers: Steve Carlton, the winner; Bob Gibson; Bill Singer; Jerry Koosman; Larry Dierker; and Phil Niekro.  Collectively, they allowed the A.L. only six hits while striking seven.

Ironically, the A.L. pitcher who was hammered for five runs in the third was John "Blue Moon" Odom.  The gods of baseball were definitely having some fun that day at the expense of the Oakland right-hander, serving up a homer to Bay Area rival McCovey.

Some interesting tidbits from that game included Rusty Staub being the first All Star from a foreign country, as "Le Grand Orange" represented with dignity the Montreal Expos.  The Seattle Pilots, in their only year of existence and the subject of one of the greatest sports books of American literature, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, had two players named to the A.L. squad: first baseman Don Mincher and outfielder Mike Hegan.

Frank Howard gave the host team Washington Senators fans something to cheer as he started in left field for the A.L.  "The Capital Punisher" had his two greatest offensive seasons in 1969 and 1970, and it was not a coincidence that his manager was Ted Williams.  The greatest scientist of hitting, Williams improved the Senators by 21 games, winning 86.  Howard was a major reason for the rise of the Senators.  He cut down on his strikeouts (96), took more walks (102), and had the highest slugging percentage (.574)of his career, all the while mashing a personal high of 48 homers.  He belted a moon ball in the second inning to cut the lead to 3-1 and give the A.L. a lift.

But it was Johnny Bench who hit the first homer I ever saw and was robbed of a second one by a fence-climbing play by Yaz, who made playing, watching, studying, writing, and cartooning all things baseball a lifelong love and obsession.  I wanted to be the next Bench.

Unfortunately, I couldn't hit the curve ball.

Maybe I should have dreamed of being the next Neil Armstrong.  Ah, I'm afraid of heights.

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