Last night’s All-Star Game actually turned out to be halfway interesting, and I’m still not sure which was my favorite part. Paula Cole’s keyboard going on the fritz? Jose Reyes being dicked out of the game’s MVP award when Country Time did his part to help the Tigers obtain home field advantage in the World Series? Or J.J. Putz staring daggers at Jimmy Leyland, after the former did his finest Billy Wagner impression?
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel, however, the night’s biggest storyline might well have been the sudden animus between NL manager Tony La Russa and his Cards superstar, Albert Pujols.
The American League’s 10th straight victory (there was a tie in 2002) was achieved with Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki hitting the first inside-the-park home run in All-Star Game history, and it also was achieved with Pujols sitting on the bench ” the only National League position player not to have seen action.
La Russa, knowing that Florida third baseman Miguel Cabrera was available only to pinch hit and not available to play in the field because of a shoulder injury, moved Pittsburgh’s Freddy Sanchez from his projected utility role to backup third baseman to New York’s David Wright. This made Pujols, the reigning Gold Glove first baseman, the National League’s utility man, which La Russa thought he had explained to Pujols before the game.
Pujols was smiling as he spoke after the game, but he didn’t mask his disappointment about not playing. Nor did a more contentious La Russa hide his disappointment that Pujols hadn’t understood the situation.
Pujols had said Monday that he would do “whatever (La Russa) wants” as a player chosen not by the fans or the players but by La Russa himself. But when Pujols didn’t play Tuesday night, he said, “Go ask the manager. He’s the one you should ask. I have no idea. He didn’t even talk to me at all.
“This is the All-Star Game. He’s the manager. He can do anything he wants.
“But if I wasn’t expecting myself to play, I wouldn’t have come up here. I’d rather stay home with my family. That’s the way it is.”
Dmitri Young, not Pujols, pinch hit in the ninth inning when the National League rallied for two runs on Alfonso Soriano’s opposite-field homer and then loaded the bases on three walks before Aaron Rowand flied out to end the game.
It was clear at that point that Pujols, the Cardinals’ only representative, was La Russa’s extra-inning man.
“I was ready,” said Pujols. “I was born ready Maybe he wanted to play the other guys and maybe he didn’t want to leave the other guys out. Maybe if he would have played me and left another guy out, they would have said, ‘Why did he play Albert instead of the other guy?’
“I was loose and ready to go. Maybe he was saving me for next year’s All-Star Game.”
La Russa was told about Pujols’ generally genial mood but still couldn’t fathom Pujols’ surprise at not playing. And La Russa, biting his words, clearly was not laughing.
“Albert was the guy who was going to do whatever we needed,” said La Russa. “If Albert doesn’t understand that, I’m surprised and disappointed. It isn’t that tough a thing. I explained his role to him before the game.
“Let me ask you this. If we go to extra innings, who’s going to be our player to move around and play? Can Dmitri move around and play? Or is Albert going to do that? Who’s the most versatile guy not playing? It’s Albert. It isn’t even that tough. He’ll figure it out sooner or later.”
Unanswered is why MLB or La Russa made no effort to replace Cabrera before the game. There remain too many questions of whether the managers are really supposed to be playing to win (and if that were the case, La Russa certainly wouldn’t have pulled Jake Peavy after one inning), is the game a showcase/exhibition for the fans, or it really about currying favor with the talent. Or perhaps some impossible-to-resolve combination of all of the above?