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'86 All-Star Game Marks a Changing of the Guard

July 21, 1986|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

HOUSTON — The all-star game was created to be a gathering ground for legends, spiced by a sprinkling of young stars. Now that tradition has been stood on its head.

The 57th edition was a game nearly devoid of larger than life heroes and shoo-in hall of famers. Yet it was abundant in kids whose names will someday be enormously evocative.

The 3-2 American League victory marked a real and slightly traumatic baseball watershed. The old order has changed, the new has definitely arrived. It was both a sad and an exciting night.

The gentlemen who have defined baseball for the past 15 years were not here: Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Steve Garvey, Rod Carew, Phil Niekro, Carlton Fisk, Bert Blyleven, Nolan Ryan, Fred Lynn, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter--all still active. That doesn't count those seminal fellows like Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Palmer who've gone rather recently.

Fifty-six players suited up here. You'd expect to see several with milestone numbers next to their names, like 500 homers, 1,500 RBIs, 3,000 hits, 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts. That's much of what all-star games have always been about.

Tuesday night, there was not one.

Lowering our criteria radically, we get an even bigger shock. How many of these '86 all-stars met any one of these standards: 300 homers, 1,000 RBIs, 1,800 hits, 160 wins or 150 saves? No matter how low you guess, you probably won't come close.

Four. None of them pitchers.

In fact, all the pitchers here have had only one 20-win season in their lives (Dwight Gooden in '85).

The lower you set your standards, the more undeniable the trend. Get down to 150 homers, 700 RBIs, 1,300 hits, 90 wins or 90 saves and only 15 of the 56 stars qualified.

Don't fear. This doesn't mean that baseball has run out of fabulous players. It just means a generation is gone. And with it, in all probability, a long tradition of National League dominance on this July stage.

The starting pitchers--Roger Clemens, 23, and Gooden, 21--were perfect symbols. Both threw faster than 95 m.p.h. Both rolled off curves neither Walter Johnson nor Cy Young could have matched. Both looked like fitting heirs to any grandmaster you'd care to name.

True, Gooden wasn't sharp and gave up a terrible 0-2 pitch gopher ball to little Lou Whitaker. Though he's in the first "slump" of his life (5-4 since early May), let's not fret over him too much just yet.

"One mistake pitch and I get hurt," said Gooden. "That's been the problem all year. I hope I can work on eliminating that in the second half of the season. Although I felt great coming in."

Gooden's had his buildup. It was Clemens' night--the game when a hometown Houston boy from Spring Woods High was as perfect as you're allowed to be. Nine men up, nine men down. Twenty-five pitches and only four balls. Two strikeouts--of former MVP Ryne Sandberg and Darryl Strawberry. Yea, verily, the same Strawman who hit a 550-foot batting practice home run off the roof speaker here on Monday that many think was one of the longest balls ever hit.

"With all the home folks here, I was really jumping," said Clemens, who needed only one good defensive play behind him--a superb dig and peg in the hole by Cal Ripken on Dale Murphy. "I just went out to have fun."

The turf was littered all evening with players who've been in the game six seasons or less but who, already, have shown that they may rank with the best ever at their positions or specialties.

Will Wade Boggs hit .400? Will Ripken's consecutive-innings streak become one of the game's benchmarks? Has the game ever had greater all-around leadoff men than Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines? Will Don Mattingly and Wally Joyner continue their Stan-Musial-playalike competition? Will Strawberry someday hit 50 home runs?

From Jose Canseco to the unrelated Fernandezes--Sid and Tony--there were players in only their first or second season with that unlimited potential look about them.

If Buck Tater Man is gone, then Chicken Man is ready. If Charlie Hustle has finally grown old, then Little Rip (the 6-foot-5, 220-pound shortstop) is prepared to mirror him and take stoic dedication to unimagined places.

Is it possible that modern baseball wears out its players faster than ever before, especially its pitchers? What has happened to all those named Morris, Petry, Guidry, Flanagan, McGregor, Stieb, Soto and a dozen more who should still be in their primes, yet seem distinctly past that point? When established mediocrities, who are merely having fairly good seasons--e.g., Rick Rhoden, Mike Krukow, Shane Rawley, Charlie Hough and Ken Schrom--can get to this game, then neither league can be too deep in great starting pitchers.

Finally, what of the great National League jinx--21 all-star wins in the previous 23 games?

It says here that the thing is dead.

The key personalities in the old NL clubhouse are gone and the bleak memories on the AL side are, too. The American has won two of the last four Star Wars and the last three World Series in a row (by a 12-to-5 margin in games).

Tuesday evening it was Clemens who set a tone of raw, cocky dominance, demythologizing the National Leaguers by coming at them with his best stuff and blowing them away. For 25 years, that was what the National League did.

Questions of league supremacy aside, this was a night that carried an even greater sense of historical shift. Never in memory have so many of our old baseball friends, so many future Cooperstown residents, left this stage simultaneously.

And not since the 1950s, when men named Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Clemente and Robinson appeared, have so many kids congregated who make the hair on the back of your neck tingle with anticipation.

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