For one night, the game of old returns

CLEVELAND — Because the world requires a good sharp-toothed, waxy and mean-spirited brute to keep the conversation lively, the baseball as villain, as game-wrecker, as alibi-maker, as CBA-buster, arrived here to a smoky dirge. To a hero’s ballad. Depended on which side of it you generally stand on, really.

Into a room of stars rolled the orb. Its reputation preceded it, which it would, given its fresh aerodynamics. There it would stay, in spite of its notable exit velocity.

So pitchers howled. And hitters looked away, they having discovered a fleck of something beneath their fingernails.

They played the 90th All-Star Game here on Tuesday night, the first, perhaps, in which there would be three participants — the American League, the National League, and that rather jumpy creature with commissioner Rob Manfred’s signature on it. Only the night before had it cleared Progressive Field fences 312 times, which only felt like a regular-season Baltimore Orioles game. Then the sport held its breath, hoping for nothing too preposterous, for something that resembled the first century-plus of baseball, when there was gravity.

Because the world requires a good sharp-toothed sense of humor, the game itself mounted its international stage, flexed until its veins stood up, then leaned coyly to a former version of itself. To opposite-field swings. To situational at-bats. (Or, at least, situational outcomes.) To stolen bases. To a reasonable number of home runs (two). To defense.

The final score: American League 4, National League 3, ball 0.

Cleveland Indians pitcher Shane Bieber was named the All-Star Game MVP on Tuesday night. (Getty Images)

The Most Valuable Player was … a pitcher. It was Indians right-hander Shane Bieber. That hadn’t happened in six years, and just that once (Mariano Rivera in 2013) since 1999 (Pedro Martinez).

In that way, and in the aftermath of pained pleas from Justin Verlander, among others, and not a little defensiveness from Manfred, the game was a reminder that what they pleaded for and what they defended was still possible. That hitting a baseball is next to impossible for all but a few. That hitting it high enough and long enough with any consistency at all is harder than that. That there’s plenty still relevant in the rest of the game, end to end, even if the game didn’t count, even if half the rosters were airport-bound before Aroldis Chapman threw the final pitch, a deft slider that struck out Yasmani Grandal, even if come Thursday and Friday they’ll be back to peppering bleachers.

In the meantime, the game was kind of beautiful.

On his way from the mound on the night he’d officially stand with the best in the league, Lucas Giolito popped his glove a few times with his right hand. When he reached his catcher as he neared the dugout, he put his arm around the bulky Gary Sanchez and smiled.

He’d had another good night, another good day. He’d covered a few more strides away from whatever the heck had happened the season before with the Chicago White Sox, and then from that summer he’d been rushed onto the Washington Nationals roster at 21 years old. He threw a pitch to the backstop, took a breath, and pitched a scoreless fourth inning, into the teeth of the 2019 game.

“Looks like,” he said, stealing a glance at the game on a television, “pitching’s kinda dominating right now.”

And in the fifth inning, nearly 40,000 people chanted “Bieber! Bieber! Bieber!”, to which Bieber struck out three batters. They’d followed Verlander and Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Berrios, and Liam Hendriks and Shane Greene and Brad Hand and Chapman would follow, and it wouldn’t be perfect, and it also wouldn’t be a complete back-legged, upper-cutted mess either, and that was refreshing.

See, balls put into play tended to remain in play, unless they deserved not to be. That was something. And so the debate over the ball, and who knew what and when they knew it, had dissolved into a warm, moonlit night of hardball. Perhaps everyone’s arms were tired from the night before.

“I prefer not small ball,” Verlander said shortly after his scoreless first inning, “but a different brand of baseball.”

One, presumably, that does not trifle with his ERA. Or add to his league-high 26 first-half home runs allowed. He said he’d spoken to league officials on the subject of his emphatic assertions. He really does hate the new baseball, which, incidentally, is the same given to every other pitcher.

“It is what it is,” Verlander said. “If they want things to change, it’ll change.”

Earlier, Max Scherzer had said, “We as players wonder why the ball can change that much, that fast, and to have that big of results. That’s why as players we deserve an answer to what’s going on.”

Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros and the American League reacts during the 2019 MLB All-Star Game at Progressive Field on July 09, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

This would suggest the league has the wherewithal to alter the ball, which of course it probably does, but insists has not, but maybe could now that the game looks a bit warped.

“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration of the baseball,” said Manfred, whose league owns Rawlings, the company that makes the baseballs. “The flaw in logic is that baseball wants more home runs. If you sat in owners meetings and listen to people on how the game is played, that is not a sentiment among the owners for whom I work.”

There it stands. The ball. The men who must deal with it, both sides, competitively and politically. The conversation fills the time. The gripes fill their postgame rants. The rest is just final scores, bigger than usual.

In between, they invited the best among them here, played an All-Star Game, and made it look like something familiar. Everybody wins. Even the villain.

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