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Win Was Always Enough For Former K.C. All-Star Frank White
PITTSBURGH — Here’s how it goes in baseball: They build new ballparks that look old. They cherish records set when baseball was a very different game. And they try to make the All-Star Game matter like it once did. They do this by adding gimmicks.
For instance, the American League — thanks to a ninth-inning rally — won Tuesday’s All-Star Game. With that, the league also won home-field advantage for the World Series. This added incentive, apparently, was supposed to make the game mean more to the players and managers.
“We found out painfully last year that home field is an advantage in the World Series,” National League manager Phil Garner said before the game. You know, Garner’s Astros were actually swept in last year’s World Series, having lost two games on the road and then two at home, so I’m not exactly sure home-field advantage played a crucial role in that World Series.
The point remains: Players used to care a whole lot about the All-Star Game. Then they stopped caring at all. The goal is to somehow make them believe this game matters, no easy trick considering that, well, the game actually doesn’t matter.
Tuesday’s game featured 15 different pitchers. Troy Glaus played first base for the first time in his major-league career. Bud Selig led a long tribute to Roberto Clemente smack in the middle of the game. It’s just an exhibition. No gimmicks can change that.
It wasn’t always just an exhibition, though.
“We didn’t need home-field advantage to make us care,” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White said. “We were going all out to win. Everybody wanted to win.”
White was a long way from Pittsburgh when he said that: He was about to manage a Class AA baseball game in Midland, Texas. Still, he remembered. He played in five All-Star Games in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and his American League team lost the first four.
That bugged him. A lot. League pride mattered — there was no interleague play. Players rarely jumped from league to league. Each league had its own president, its own umpires, its own style of baseball.
Nobody ever forgot the way the National League’s Pete Rose barreled over American League catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 game.
“We didn’t like those National League guys very much,” White said.
That takes us back 20 years, to the All-Star Game in Houston. It was 1986. The American League was up 2-0 in the seventh inning, and hometown hero Mike Scott jogged to the mound. The crowd of 45,774 stood. The Astrodome vibrated. Scott was perhaps the most unhittable pitching force in the game that year.
“He threw that so-called forkball,” White said. He said “so-called” with a chuckle — everybody figured Scott cut the baseball to make it sink. Anyway, Scott struck out 306 batters that season, the highest strikeout total for any pitcher in the 1980s.
There was thunderous applause when the inning began, and Scott promptly struck out Cal Ripken and Jesse Barfield. To this day, White remembers the look on Ripken’s face as he walked back to the dugout. “Good luck,” Ripken said doubtfully to White as he sat on the bench.
White walked to the batter’s box. Noise throbbed in his ear. He had never gotten a hit in an All-Star Game — he was zero for five — and he was a bit sensitive about his hitting.
“People talked only about my defense,” he said. “But I always thought of myself as an all-around ballplayer. I could deliver the big blow.” That year White hit 22 home runs and drove in 84, pretty powerful numbers in the 1980s.
He stepped up to the plate, and Scott threw one of his unhittable forkballs. White remembered: “I had no chance.” Second pitch, same as the first. No chance. The crowd, if possible, got louder.
White stepped out of the batter’s box and re-evaluated his position. He thought Scott might try to throw an inside fastball. “I was guessing,” he said. “What else could I do?”
Scott threw that inside fastball. White turned on it. The Astrodome was one tough place to hit a home run. But White got just enough — the ball sailed over the wall.
And the thing he would remember second-most was the way the sound in the crowd just shut off, suddenly, as if someone had slammed shut a window. He trotted around the bases in beautiful silence, and the American League led 3-0.
The American League would win the game 3-2 when White finished off the game by starting a double play.
Funny thing: That was the same score Tuesday, 3-2, American League. This time the hero was another middle infielder, shortstop Michael Young. He cranked a two-run triple in the ninth inning. “Everybody dreams of having a big hit in the All-Star Game,” he said.
Three hours earlier, Frank White had said: “Everybody dreams of hitting a home run in the All-Star Game.”
One final detail: You may have noticed that the silence of the fans was the SECOND-most memorable part of that day. What White remembered most was the look on the face of his manager, Dick Howser.
He was happy. Howser was the American League manager for the first and only time. He sent up White, one of his favorite players, to pinch hit. That player had come through big. After the hit, the two men sat close.
“Great hitting, Lou,” Howser said.
Frank White blinked. Lou? Who was Lou? Howser had confused White with Detroit’s Lou Whitaker. Strange. White thought nothing of it. The next day, Howser went to the doctor.
The news was awful. Howser had a brain tumor. Later, doctors determined it was malignant. He died less than a year later. Dick Howser had won his last game as a manager when Frank White guessed inside fastball in those days when the All-Star Game still mattered.