Jul 15, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe I’m just a softie, but the All-Star Game has always held a special place in my heart.
Where else can you find this kind of assemblage of baseball talent, outside of perhaps Cooperstown for one summer weekend, the sport’s best and brightest stars all gathered together in one place for 48 hours?
You couldn’t take three steps at Target Field yesterday without bumping into baseball royalty. Over here, it’s Derek Jeter, in his 14th (and final) All-Star Game. Over there, it’s Mike Trout, in his third (and certainly not final) appearance in the Midsummer Classic. Walk down Nicollet Mall and see Clayton Kershaw strolling with his family. Oh, and that older gentleman drawing a crowd everywhere he goes? Meh, just Hank Aaron.
This is where the very best baseball players in the world are recognized for their immense talent, showcased for all to see.
And yet, as I walk around town, I can’t help but feel a particular void. Something is missing here, something that is preventing this event from feeling complete.
Something like a large contingency of Washington Nationals.
I’ve covered plenty of previous All-Star Games in which the Nationals were afterthoughts, recipients of one token player selection because that’s what MLB requires. Like the year Cristian Guzman represented the franchise. Or the time Matt Capps did.
Those teams, though, didn’t deserve more than one All-Star. Few last-place clubs do.
These current Nationals, on the other hand, went into the break tied with Atlanta atop the NL East, owners of the league’s third-best record (51-42), best run differential (+61) and given a whopping 80.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason (according to Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report).
Yet the Nats are persona non grata at this All-Star Game, forgotten by just about everyone in attendance.
For proof of that, just start asking real, live, All-Stars if they can name the Nationals’ representatives here in town.
“I’m not sure,” Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco said.
“Uh,” Pirates super utilityman Josh Harrison replied. “To be honest, I don’t really know.”
“For the Nationals?” Padres right-hander Tyson Ross asked aloud. “Um, honestly, I’ve got to plead ignorance on that one.”
Come on. Surely somebody here knows which National or Nationals are All-Stars.
“I do not,” Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. “I … I … I don’t know.”
“I don’t,” Royals closer Greg Holland admitted. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Don’t worry, Greg. It could be worse.
Asked if he knew how many All-Stars the Nats had this year, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones laid the biggest egg of the day.
“I think … uh … I know Jordan Zimmermann is,” Jones said. “But he’s not participating due to his injury. Um, I think that was the only one. I know Espinosa, he was on the final ballot, having a great year.”
OK, Adam, we’ll give you partial credit for correctly knowing that Zimmermann was initially named to the team but was scratched over the weekend after suffering a biceps strain. But whatever credit you earned for that went right down the toilet when you mistook Anthony Rendon for Danny Espinosa.
To be fair, I put all these guys on the spot, and anyone can get flustered when put into that situation. So don’t hold this against any of them.
Point is, there is perhaps no team less in the spotlight here than the Nationals. I mean, for a full 24 hours over the weekend, they literally were not going to have anybody in Minneapolis representing them, with Zimmermann replaced not by a teammate but by Marlins right-hander Henderson Alvarez.
Not until Tyler Clippard was named as Julio Teheran’s replacement on Sunday afternoon were the Nationals assured of having anybody in the Twin Cities. And it doesn’t even appear as though Clippard was high on NL manager Mike Matheny’s wish list.
“Clippard is one of the Nationals that is having a good season, obviously,” Matheny said when asked how he came to that decision. “And there were a couple of Nationals that were not available. But really wanted each team to be represented, and Tyler was one of the pitchers who has had an outstanding season and should represent that team well.”
Matheny never specified who those “couple” of unavailable Nationals were, but it stands to reason Rafael Soriano was one of them. The veteran closer, owner of 22 saves and an 0.97 ERA, made it clear he wouldn’t accept an invitation to replace another All-Star after getting left off the initial team last week.
Poor Clippard, then, feels something like Plan G, the guy way down the depth chart who was the only one to say yes.
“Matt [Williams] called me in the office [Sunday] morning and asked if I was interested in representing the Nats,” Clippard said. “And I said, of course. I felt like we definitely needed some representation here. It was going to be a bittersweet situation if the Nationals didn’t have anybody in uniform in the All-Star Game. So I’m happy to do it.”
Who wouldn’t? Clippard, who actually wound up as the winning pitcher in the 2011 game, can now say he’s a 2-time All-Star, an honor that isn’t just bestowed on anybody.
But as was the case three years ago in Arizona, Clippard is all alone at the All-Star Game. No teammates. Nobody else wearing the curly W cap.
It’s unfortunate, because the Nationals genuinely deserve more attention than this. They may or may not be one of the best teams in baseball. But they darn well aren’t the worst.
Walk the streets of Minneapolis this week, though, and you might just forget this is a first-place club and legitimate World Series contender.
The entire baseball world has come to town to celebrate the sport’s best players. Well, the entire baseball world, minus one well-known city on the Potomac River.
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