[Web Special] The All-Stars: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, July 07, 2009 - 06:00 AM

Watching the selection show for baseball's All-Star Game on TBS Sunday, I thought of Billy Martin. Talking about Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner in 1978, the irascible and perhaps drunken Yankees manager said, "One's a born liar and the other's convicted."

Martin was spot-on about Yankees owner Steinbrenner, who was convicted for his part in the sleazier side of Richard Nixon's '72 campaign operations. Jackson, the story goes, pissed Martin off in a public disagreement over whether Mr. October was bunting on his own in a game. ... (continue reading)

At next week's all-star game in St. Louis, the role of the "convicted" will be played by Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada, who pled guilty this past February to lying about the purchase of performance-enhancing drugs to federal investigators.

(Tejada is the subject of an overlooked book by Marcus Breton and Jose Luis Villegas called "Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Baseball Player." The pictures of a scrawny Tejada, who grew up in extreme poverty in the Dominican Republic, are heartbreaking in contrast with who and what he is now.)

The "born" one, that's a little trickier, and it says everything about where baseball is right now. I'm going with Albert Pujols of the Cardinals. Fans love him – he got the second highest number of votes ever recorded in All-Star voting this year – and he's having a season that is outstanding even by his own lofty standards. He's singlehandedly put the ramshackle Cardinals in serious contention for a playoff spot.

Pujols says he doesn't use anything stronger than prayer, good workouts and a lot of cage time to achieve all this. I wish I could believe him.

There's his physique. The before (rookie year) and after (now) photos of Pujols give you the full, "Hey, is that the same guy?" double-take that you get from similarly timed photos of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. He appears to have gained twenty or thirty pounds, all of it muscle. He's got acne, the bullish neck, the bulbous head, the uniform-popping physique, all those things we've been educated to consider signifiers, not strength.

Pujols's stats are cartoonish too. He's hitting .336 with a Ruthian slugging percentage of .739. He's on pace to hit 61 home runs this year, what would arguably be the greatest single season in the history of baseball - if Bonds, McGwire and Sammy Sosa hadn't gotten there first.

Pujols didn't do himself any good with his non-denial denials in a Sports Illustrated feature this past spring, either, or his reliance on negative tests administered by MLB (they don't test for human growth hormone), or his claim that his faith in Jesus precludes him from being a user. That probably got a chuckle from Andy Pettitte.

(And that reminds me, Newser reports that there may be an all-time record four Jewish players in the game this year: Ryan Braun of the Brewers, Jason Marquis of the Rockies and Kevin Youkilis – erroneously dubbed "the Greek God of Walks" by Billy Beane – of the Red Sox, and it looks like Ian Kinsler of the Rangers will make it too.)

One of the tragedies here is that I could be wrong about Pujols. Maybe he's the real deal, that one-in-every-fifty- years guy like Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. If that's true, one of the things that the steroid scandals have cost us is the awe at seeing something truly great.

The man who manages Manny Ramirez, Joe Torre, put it best in an interview yesterday with Alex Diamond of mlb.com: "I think baseball right now is tainted, and we need to get the trust back. I don't think there's any question, even your guys who have never possibly taken anything, they'll hit a home rum, and there's still going to be somebody in the stands saying, 'What do you think?'"

Besides Pujols, the guys in the All-Star game who are going to get that question this year are Joe Mauer of the Twins and Raul Ibanez of the Phillies, who've both had astonishing, one-year power spikes, the kind we've come to understand are often artificially induced.

Most of the rest of the all-star rosters are a lot more fun to contemplate. You've got your guys who are laughably unsteroidish, who wouldn't look out of place in a beer league (yeah, you, Tim Wakefield, Boston, Heath Bell, San Diego, and Prince Fielder, Milwaukee ). You've got guys with sterling reputations (Derek Jeter of the Yankees, Torii Hunter of the Angels and Ichiro Suzuki of the Planet Ichiro). You've got squeaky clean budding superstars (Dustin Pedroia of Boston, Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay, Danny Haren of Arizona), and pitchers whose games are so elegant as to themselves constitute a refutation of the need for steroids (Johan Santana of the Mets, Mark Buehrle of the White Sox, Ted Lilly of the Cubs).

Then you've got your great stories, the ones that make you glad you're a baseball fan: Zach Greinke of the Royals, the best pitcher in the majors this year, battling his way back from debilitating depression; Andrew Bailey of Oakland, who nearly washed out of baseball as a failed starter in Midland, Texas, last year and now looks like he's headed towards being the best closer in the game; and Tim Lincecum of the Giants, who has reinvented the pitching motion and is the only player in baseball who looks like he could front an indie band.

The only question I have about those guys is, "Why aren't there more of them?"

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