Reporting David Elfin
When I was growing up in the era when the only interleague baseball games were in the World Series or in exhibitions and National League players weren’t even often glimpsed on television in an American League city like Washington, the All-Star Game really was the Midsummer Classic as the event has been nicknamed.
It was always a thrill to see all of baseball’s greats on the same field. In 1971, for example, 21 of the players went on to enshrinement in Cooperstown and that’s not counting all-time hits leader Pete Rose, who remains banned from baseball for gambling. The National League pitching staff included Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver. Fellow Hall of Famer Bob Gibson didn’t even make the cut although he would pitch his only no-hitter that summer. Six of the top 10 pre-steroid era career home run leaders – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson and Willie McCovey – also suited up that night in Tiger Stadium.
The All-Star Game is a better event than its football, basketball and hockey counterparts because the players play defense and care about winning as symbolized by Rose’s headfirst crash into catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 contest. Commissioner Bud Selig raised the stakes in 2003 with his decision to give home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game.
So I’m conflicted about the push by the Nats to have rookie outfielder Bryce Harper selected by the fans as the NL’s final All-Star for the annual contest between the leagues a week from tonight in Kansas City. True, the All-Star Game has always been for the fans, but it has also always been about baseball’s best (while allowing for a representative from every team), not just its most popular or latest hot player.
Harper is having a terrific season for a 19-year-old, but his .274 batting average, eight homers and 22 RBI since being recalled more than two months ago aren’t All-Star numbers, especially for an outfielder. Aside from his basic stats, Harper’s just 28th in the NL in on-base percentage and 29th in slugging percentage.
As Harper, who’s sometimes wise beyond his years, said, Atlanta Braves 40-year-old third baseman Chipper Jones, who’s retiring after the season, should be the fans’ choice for all that he has meant to baseball.
But none of this takes away from the superb start to Harper’s career. If he stays healthy the rest of the way, he’ll become just the 18th teenager to play in 100 games in a season, joining a group that includes Hall of Famers Mel Ott (who played in 11 of the first 12 All-Star Games) of the 1928 New York Giants, Al Kaline (who played in that 1971 All-Star Game) of the 1954 Detroit Tigers and Robin Yount (who made this list with both the 1974 and 1975 Milwaukee Brewers) as well as sure enshrine Ken Griffey Jr. of the 1989 Seattle Mariners.
The record for homers in a season by a teenager is 24 by Tony Conigliaro of the 1964 Boston Red Sox. Phil Cavaretta’s 82 RBI for the1935 NL champion Chicago Cubs remains the high-water mark in that stat while Ott hit for the highest average, .322 in 1928.
If Harper can raise his average six points to .280, hit another three homers (a sure thing) and drive in 35 more runs, he’ll have produced arguably the greatest season by a teenager other than Ott. And that will be much more of an accomplishment than being the last NL All-Star thanks to a fan vote.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin