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a midsummer's ball game
watching the classic become a classic
by michelle von euw

My husband sits on the couch, a thick black binder flipped open as the All-Star Game flickers on the television set in front of us. It’s the 77th annual mid-summer classic, and, more meaningfully to us, the tenth year we've watched it together.

He points to a card encased in plastic in his book, to a face so young and thin and inexperienced it looks like it belongs to a sophomore in high school at best.

“Derek Jeter,” I say, and he pulls back his hand to reveal the name of the current Yankees’ superstar, so recently on our television screen looking mature and self-possessed.

In the binder stacked full of baseball cards are hundreds of other faces like Jeter’s, some hardly recognizable but still familiar young boys on the brink of their first contracts, some who’ve gone on to become All-Stars, and some who’ve washed out, like the next card Joe shows me, the young, eighteen-year old smile of a man I only know as a thirty-something father of two who wears a suit and tie to work. This card belongs to a friend of his, one who started out just like the young and hopeful Jeter, but whose path ultimately led in an entirely different direction.

* * *

Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith announce the American League and National League starting lineups respectively, and Cal’s talkative nervousness as he tries to insert personal recollections about each of the players is balanced by Ozzie’s quiet professionalism.

During the first All-Star Game we watched together in 1997, when we were just getting to know each other and still a little bit in awe that we were each spending so much time with someone else equally preoccupied with the sport of baseball, Cal Ripken was the AL's starting shortstop.

“These guys look old,” I say. And not just baseball old, but old old.

* * *

Our most memorable All-Star Game was the one we almost went to. In the end, we just missed out on tickets, and had to settle for a pair to the Homerun Derby the day before instead. The festivities were held that year in Fenway Park, my number one favorite place in the entire world, and a park Joe was on his way to building a complicated relationship with. The ballpark was as hot and steamy as it usually is in July, and balls struggled through the thick air off the bats of McGwire, Nomar, Ken Griffey, Jr. (Sosa was there, too, but eliminated early as he smacked only one sorry dinger in a park fabled for its ability to turn fly balls into homeruns.)

I don’t remember much of the game itself, which we watched five miles away from Fenway in my parents’ living room, my dad commenting on how frail his hero Ted Williams looked as the former ballplayer strode with tears in his eyes through a ballpark he once owned to the adoration of the current All-Stars, born long after he’d taken his last at bat in Boston.

* * *

The ballplayers on my television screen all look the same. Not their appearances so much –- though all of them seem to be dark-haired, tanned, and cocky in a way that blends their features, regardless of race -- but the way they hold themselves, strive to the mound or the plate, heft the tools of their game with authority.

There are exceptions, there are always exceptions –- C.C. Sabathia, for one, and Prince Fielder, two men with bodies much rounder than their teammates, deceptively so even, as they appear ill-suited for the game at which they both excel.

I still can’t look at Torii Hunter in his grey Minnesota Twins uniform without thinking of the pudgier Kirby Puckett, a man who dominated the annual match-up for the first dozen years of my baseball-watching career.

* * *

It’s a bit strange to observe the solid grey of the American League team lined up on the edge of the dugout, Jeter alongside Roberts alongside Ichiro alongside seventy-two Detroit Tigers. There’s a blending of these men in their road uniforms that forms a strange sort of cohesion. In the American League Central, it’s still a three-team race; Seattle is a few tight games behind the Angels in the West, and in the East, things will never be friendly. But for one night, standings are forgotten, feuds are put aside, cities are left behind, and the camaraderie among men who live way-too-similar yet highly unusual lives is allowed to blossom.

* * *

“Who’s this?” Joe asks, and points to yet another baby face. He flips the pages between innings, stopping at ones from the 1990s, the 1980s, players in forgotten uniforms under the names of defunct baseball card companies.

Manny Ramirez with almost normal hair. Gabe Kapler in profile. Curt Schilling in an Orioles cap and jersey.

There’s a theme to the cards now, all Red Sox players I’ve come to love as mature, self-possessed veterans -- mature in age, if not in attitude, as Manny will always be an eight-year-old kid to me, bouncing around left field and getting distracted by what’s around him, like a Little Leaguer discovering unpicked weeds in the outfield.

But my favorite men in the game, on this night, are the new boys, among the youngest and latest additions to the Red Sox pitching staff. Our bullpen gods, a relatively unheralded Japanese setup man with an unbelievable 0.83 ERA, and a lights out closer younger than half my husband’s sweatsuits.

It seems almost miraculous that our eighth and ninth inning guys, the thick heart of the Boston bullpen, are both here for the All-Star Game. Okajima especially -- the pitching squads are usually made up of starters and closers, the glamour positions, and not the unsung workhorses who bridge them. Not only did Okajima make the squad, but he was the fan's final vote, showing that an afterthought to a major deal with an unconventional delivery can sometimes make good. The big Japanese signing of the off-season, Dice K, is probably back in Boston shopping for a firmer mattress, while his countryman shares a bullpen with baseball's elite starters like Beckett and Verlander.

I take a certain joy in seeing those Japanese features beneath the familiar navy and red of the Boston cap as Okajima warms up between innings. But that's the most I'll see of him tonight; while Papelbon will strike out two in a scoreless inning, the fans won't get to see their AL pick even enter the game.

* * *

In the ten years we've been watching the All-Star Game together, the National League has yet to win a single one of them. I try not to be superstitious about this; I'm an AL girl, and I like to believe this streak will continue, just as I'd certainly be satisfied if the Red Sox would win every World Series for the next century or so.

* * *

We are watching the game on our TiVo. We fast forward through commercials and the endless bouts of cleverness from Tim McCarver and Joe Buck, and rewind to watch Eric Byrnes push his dog into McCovey Cove again and again. In the ninth, the NL decides to make the game exciting, cutting the AL's lead to a mere run and loading the bases, but the senior circuit falls short. Again.

The AL wins, and all is stable in our world. We've watched this game in four states, as boyfriend/girlfriend, with a shiny diamond ring alone on my finger, as newlyweds, as a couple so familiar with each other, with baseball, we only half pay attention to the game, Joe with his autographed cards, me with my laptop, trying not to wonder how soon it will be until we're old, too, not baseball old, not Trevor Hoffman old, but Cal Ripken old, Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game old.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

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