Senior Writer

Players' lack of league identity diminishes All-Star Game


PHOENIX -- On his way out the door, long before the final out of an All-Star Game yet to be decided, Miguel Cabrera said he would still be playing if this were a real game.

On his way out the door, Josh Beckett said he likely would have pitched, if his team was the Red Sox and not the American League All-Stars.

All around them, the tunnel under Chase Field was full of players heading home early.

We're in Arizona. Are you sure this isn't just another Cactus League exhibition game?

Look, I don't blame them. I don't care who wins the All-Star Game, either. I grew up as a National League fan, but then I covered an American League team for a long time, and I don't identify with one league more than the other.

And neither do most of these players.

Can you blame them?

Cabrera was once a National Leaguer, and now he's an American Leaguer. Same goes for Beckett.

Adrian Gonzalez, who homered for the American League in Tuesday night's 5-1 NL win, played for the National League last year. Prince Fielder, whose home run decided Tuesday's game in favor of the NL, might well be playing for the American League next year.

Heath Bell, who helped the NL lock down Tuesday's win, could be pitching in the AL by ...

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"Tomorrow?" asked Bell, who has already attracted trade interest from the Rangers and may also interest the Yankees. "Hey, I'm all about the National League, until they tell me I'm not."

Nine players who played for the NL Tuesday night once played in the American League, including Roy Halladay and four others in the starting lineup. Nine players who played for the AL once played in the NL (including four starters).

Is it any wonder these players don't identify with one league or the other? Is it any wonder that it's hard for them to get worked up over which team wins, even as baseball tries to pretend that everyone now cares about this game?

The strange thing is that league identity does still exist in baseball. It's alive, and if you don't believe it, try suggesting that someone's favorite team should get realigned. Or suggest that the National League adopt the designated hitter rule, or that the American League drop it.

"Good luck doing that," a high-ranking baseball official said when I brought up the idea Tuesday.

Astros fans hate the idea of their team moving to the American League, as part of a realignment plan likely to be implemented over the next two years. Diamondbacks fans are so anti-AL that the team felt the need to assure them that Arizona won't be asked to move when realignment happens.

And when commissioner Bud Selig and players union head Michael Weiner spoke to the Baseball Writers Association of America on Tuesday, both said that major realignment that would drastically change the two leagues isn't even a part of their discussions.

Many fans still care about the leagues. Executives with many teams still believe in the leagues.

And yet, players care so little about the leagues that baseball resorts to gimmicks to try to give the All-Star Game meaning.

It's not working, no matter how many times Selig says it is.

Beckett decided to pitch in the All-Star Game, despite leaving a start last Friday with some pain in his right knee. But when he felt the knee again while warming up in the bullpen, he decided not to risk it.

Had it been a regular-season game, he told reporters, he likely would have pitched. Nothing serious, he said, adding that it is a "real strong possibility" that he'll start for the Red Sox, on schedule, this coming Sunday.

"I didn't reinjure it," Beckett said, before walking away with no noticeable limp.

The same goes for Cabrera, the Tigers first baseman who left the game in the seventh inning with what was described as a little discomfort in his right side.

"Nothing big," said Cabrera, before adding that he fully expects to play for the Tigers when the second half of their season begins Friday night.

"The first thing [AL manager Ron Washington] said to us was that he didn't want any of us to get hurt, and that we've got to be smart," Cabrera said. "I didn't want to take any chances."

There's nothing wrong with that. It's the same thing you hear in spring training, when players come out of games that don't count.

Don't take any chances. If it was a real game, I would have stayed in.

Meanwhile, down the hall in the National League clubhouse, Bell was explaining his interesting entry to the game, his run from the bullpen which ended with a slide into the mound.

"We need to get back to the entertainment part of the game," he said.

Bell was thrilled to help the National League win. He knows that the AL once dominated the All-Star Game, and that the NL has won two years in a row.

"Maybe now we can win 14 in a row," he said.

But who is "we," when Bell doesn't even know which league he'll be pitching in by the end of the month -- or even the end of the week?

Who is we, when players go back and forth and the leagues don't matter?

The leagues do matter, to so many people. There is still league identity.

But it's fading away, and it already has faded away for so many All-Star players.

And this game is fading away along with it.


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