Did Wainwright let up on Jeter?
Whether he did or didn't, Cardinals' ace hurt idea the All-Star Game matters
MINNEAPOLIS -- The 2014 All-Star Game was one big love poem to Derek Jeter, and National League starting pitcher Adam Wainwright did more than any other player on the premises to advance the feel-good storyline.
As Jeter strolled toward home plate in the bottom of the first inning, Wainwright laid his glove on the mound, took a walk toward second base and joined in the wall-to-wall applause at Target Field. When Jeter finally dug his left toe in the box and got down to business, the pitcher-batter staredown turned into a test of wills.
"He told me, 'Let's go,' and I told him no," Wainwright said later. "It's the only time I'll ever tell Derek Jeter no."
So it was almost impossible to comprehend how Wainwright's show of respect would quickly be forgotten, a celebration would elicit controversy, and the pitcher's well-intentioned mix of candor and good humor would somehow brand him as the villain of the evening. In this age of instant information dissemination and rapid reactions, Wainwright learned the hard way that too much honesty can turn a stand-up guy into a Twitter piñata.
Shortly after giving up an opposite-field double to Jeter, a triple to Mike Trout and a home run to Miguel Cabrera that helped propel the American League to a 5-3 victory over the National League, Wainwright inadvertently stepped in it big-time. While reflecting on Jeter's at-bat, he provided one detail too many.
"I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots," Wainwright said. "He deserved it. I didn't know he was going to hit a double or I would have changed my mind. I thought he was going to hit something hard to the right side for a single or an out. I probably should have pitched him a little bit better."
Chances are the negative fallout from the event will blow over relatively quickly. But this much is certain: Wainwright's biggest claim to fame in New York will no longer be freezing Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran with a curveball in the ninth inning of Game 7 in the 2006 National League Championship Series.
Wainwright will undoubtedly be subjected to his share of criticism over the coming days. He will be accused of raining on Jeter's parade, of cheapening the Captain's moment and of undermining the integrity of the All-Star Game. He understands that better than anyone, which is why he spent the better part of 10 minutes after the game flogging himself for his bad judgment.
He referred to himself as a "knucklehead" and an "idiot" while simultaneously expressing regret that his choice of words might have taken away from Jeter's big moment.
"If I'm going to get taken to the slaughterhouse for saying a stupid phrase, then I deserve it," Wainwright said. "If you can't laugh at yourself when you mess up, then you're going to continue to mess up. And you know what? I messed up. But I didn't try to let him get a hit. I messed up by speaking afterward."
For all the mixed messages and confusion that Wainwright elicited Tuesday, he probably did Major League Baseball a favor by exposing the massive problems inherent with what the All-Star Game has become in recent years. If there were any doubt, commissioner Bud Selig's "This One Counts" initiative has outlived its usefulness and needs to be put to rest before the 2015 All-Star Game in Cincinnati.
It has been 11 years since MLB began awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the AL or NL team based on the outcome of the All-Star Game, and Selig maintains that the system has achieved its purpose by elevating a quaint midsummer exhibition into must-see summer viewing. If raising the stakes can increase the suspense and prompt more viewers to tune in to the game, that's obviously a good thing. And as Selig is fond of saying, the old system of alternating home-field advantage between leagues from one year to the next wasn't exactly "Einstein's theory of relativity."
But as the Wainwright-Jeter flap shows, the system has way too many pitfalls and minefields to be viable anymore.
MLB can't attach paramount importance to the All-Star Game when fans elect the starters, players have a say in the process, managers round out the rosters, and fans have yet another say in the Internet Final Vote. There are just too many constituencies to satisfy, and the voting becomes one big hash.
If home-field advantage in the World Series is at stake, every team should not have a representative, as is the custom, and the best players need to stick around for the long haul rather than make cameos. A prime example is Trout, who would have played all nine innings Tuesday instead of exiting in the sixth inning with a double, a triple and two RBIs in three at-bats.
And while this might seem sacrilegious, you can debate whether Jeter should have even been playing in the All-Star Game this year if it were strictly about winning. Of the 12 American League shortstops who qualify for the batting title, Jeter ranks 11th with a .647 OPS -- ahead of only Seattle's Brad Miller. Jeter deserved to be in Minneapolis for his class, fan appeal and overall body of work, and it would have been a crime for fans to miss a chance to say goodbye to him. But even a die-hard Yankees rooter might have trouble justifying Jeter batting leadoff for the AL squad if this were strictly about "This One Counts."
Some Yankees fans will claim that Wainwright's "pipe shot" phrase was disrespectful to Jeter because it implied that The Captain couldn't have gotten a hit without a helping hand. If so, they're a lot more sensitive than Jeter, who was content to let things slide when informed of Wainwright's comments after the game.
"If he grooved it, thank you," Jeter said. "You still have to hit it."
That's the perspective and self-assurance of a man who has 3,408 hits and five World Series rings on his résumé and knows that he will be going to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
The flap over Wainwright's grooved pitch reflects the changing mindset that linking World Series home-field advantage has wrought. When Chan Ho Park allegedly grooved a pitch to Cal Ripken Jr. in the Iron Man's final All-Star appearance in 2001, it was perceived as more a sign of generosity than a major breach of etiquette. But then, if Park did feed Ripken a "pipe shot," he at least had the good sense to keep quiet about it.
Sometimes the line between showmanship and winning tends to blur at the All-Star Game. Two years ago, Justin Verlander gave up five runs in the first inning of the AL's 8-0 loss in Kansas City and admitted that he wanted to light up the radar gun.
"I know this game means something," Verlander said at the time, "but we're here for the fans, and I know the fans don't want to see me throw 90 [mph] and hit the corners. Just let it eat and have fun."
Wainwright's biggest sin, in contrast, was trying to balance competition, respect for a distinguished elder and his natural inclination to avoid conducting media interviews like a garden-variety baseball robot. In exchange for spreading himself too thin, he almost blew up Twitter.
"People in New York already don't like me, so anything else I say will just fuel the fire there," Wainwright said before leaving Target Field. "I should probably hush up."
It's a little late for that. But if Wainwright's experience at the 2014 All-Star Game can prompt MLB to take a hard look at the event and what it should be, maybe his long, emotional night in Minnesota will have been worth it.
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