Julio Rodriguez Gave The All-Star Game Some Stakes
9:12 AM EDT on July 12, 2023
I've remained sentimental about MLB's version of the all-star game even as I've discarded all the other sports', because I like the tradition that dates back to a time when you almost never saw these guys on the field together, the way the format gives at least one opportunity in the spotlight to nearly every player selected, how the solitary nature of baseball mostly keeps guys trying even in an exhibition, and also, because what else am I going to watch on a Tuesday in July? But I can't claim to be legitimately invested in the outcome.
For those 14 years after The Tie, when the game decided home-field advantage in the World Series, you could talk yourself into cheering for your league even though it was filled with at least a few players whose guts you hated, and the home-field advantage was probably going to one of your rivals anyway. But now we're firmly back in a Root For Your Guys situation, and individual moments have to serve as the draw. And there's no individual moment quite like the hometown hero coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
This year's game, which the National League won 3-2, had enough baseball-as-baseball moments to make it satisfactory on those terms. The first batters of the game, who hit long flyouts resulting in exciting catches by Adolis García and Randy Arozarena, set a charming, sandlot-like tone. In the bottom half, Sean Murphy threw out Arozarena with a nasty one-bounce throw as he tried to steal second. Selections like Luis Arráez, who went 2-for-2 on two solid singles, and Camilo Doval, who hit 101.7 on the gun and threw the six fastest pitches of the game, presented their standout skills on a stage that encompassed fans from all over. NL third baseman Austin Riley created beautiful outs with a barehand charge and a line-drive double play. And Elias Díaz, the lone representative of the lowly Rockies, appearing in his first midsummer classic at age 32, smashed a two-run dinger in the top of the eighth that put the NL atop for good. (There was also, because baseball is, more than anything else, weird, an overturned home run on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. foul ball.)
You could enjoy all of these discrete moments (except the foul ball) from either side of the almost completely faded line that divides American and National League, but the bottom of the ninth became special when it presented us, finally, with a protagonist and an antagonist. The NL had its lead. Craig Kimbrel protected it with a flyout and a strikeout. But then Kyle Tucker reached first, bringing Julio Rodriguez up as the potential walk-off winning run, with a chance for redemption after striking out on Doval's hypersonic projectiles in the seventh.
The All-Star Game was in Seattle this year, by the way, and if any fans in attendance had been a little disappointed by the drop in both average and power the Mariners' young center fielder has experienced since his 2022 Rookie Of The Year campaign, they absolutely smothered it in adoration. Before but especially after a rousing performance at the Home Run Derby the night prior, Rodriguez carries the hopes of a club that's seen its fair share of generational talents but has never won a pennant and has hosted just one heartbreaking playoff game since 2001. Rodriguez evokes no less than Ken Griffey Jr. with his position, his suave play, his apparently limitless potential, and that sweet swing. It's a heavy burden of a comparison—"We just want you to be as cool as the coolest player ever"—but it means Seattle loves him like a grandson. And when he came up to bat with the game on the line, this contest was no longer really between the mostly irrelevant sides of senior circuit and junior. It was Seattle vs. the visitors.
The result was neither a storybook ending nor a humiliation. Rodriguez took one inside to start; swung and missed at a teasing ball just below the zone; ignored a gutsy fastball right down Broadway, another well away, and ball three off the face of the plate; then chased to foul off another. Finally, he watched ball four land outside and took his base, moving the tying run into scoring position. Given that Rodriguez said “I was definitely trying to win it, honestly" in the postgame—who wouldn't be?—this was an impressive display of patience.
The next batter, José Ramírez, struck out to end it. But on a night where the final score was secondary to a celebration of this particularly enthralling generation of baseball talent, it was enough. The odds of any given MLB player's career delivering him to a big moment in an All-Star Game in his home ballpark are small enough to make it not even worth dreaming about. It'll never happen again for the pairing of Rodriguez and Seattle. I'm sure they know that. The sound of the crowd on that walk to the plate will have to suffice.