Where have all the All-Stars gone?

Just a few years ago, seven or eight players looked like the second coming of Mays and Musial. What happened?

By Allen Barra
Published July 3, 2002 7:13PM (EDT)

More fans like to argue about the All-Star lineup than actually watch the All-Star game. Arguing about who should be on the All-Star team is a hallowed midseason ritual. Occasionally basketball fans will argue about who should have made the NBA All-Star team, but there's little fuel to sustain it and the arguments usually peter out quickly. I've never heard anybody argue about who should play in the NFL's Pro Bowl; the players actually fake injuries so they don't have to go. In baseball, the right All-Star invitations and the wrong All-Star snubs -- or vice versa -- are remembered and argued over years after the fact. I guarantee you more fans remember Garry Templeton's remark, "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'" than can remember Garry Templeton's lifetime batting average.

This year is no different. There are all sorts of interesting quibbles. Why, for instance, is Philadelphia's Scott Rolen starting at third base instead of Florida's Mike Lowell? Philadelphia fans are said to be pissed off at Rolen for hesitating to commit himself long term to the Phillies (sounds like common sense to me, but let that pass), but what's the excuse for the rest of the country? I'm always willing to cut slack for the proven veteran over the unproven phenom; when I was a kid I wanted to see Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, not the 22-year-old who happened to be outhitting them by 30 points at the All-Star break. But Lowell has been at least as good a fielder and a much better hitter than Rolen for two years now, and besides, Rolen ain't Willie Mays.

Pudge Rodriguez is, at least among catchers. Jorge Posada is a good backup All-Star, nothing more. I don't care what Posada is outhitting Rodriguez by this year or how many games he's missed, Pudge is the best American League catcher in nearly 40 years and has a legitimate shot at winding up as the best all-around catcher ever. There's simply no reason why Pudge Rodriguez shouldn't be the starting American League catcher, and he isn't even on the roster.

A similar situation occurs in the National League at first base, where Colorado's Todd Helton has a healthy lead over Houston's Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell is having the worst season -- in fact, the only bad season, at .256 with just 12 home runs -- of his major league career, and yet there is no clear difference between his performance this year and Helton's. In Colorado, Helton is a superstar with a .343 batting average, 16 home runs and 60 RBIs. The problem with this is that in Colorado everybody is a superstar. On the road, Helton wouldn't get noticed with an American Express card stapled to his forehead, batting .288 with just six home runs and 24 RBIs. In fact, his on-base average on the road (.365) is lower than Bagwell's overall (.367).

At third base for the American League, there is another quibble. Boston's Shea Hillenbrand is starting over two worthier players, the Yankees' Robin Ventura and Oakland's Eric Chavez, who in fact failed to make the team altogether. Ventura was the best third baseman in the American League and maybe in all of baseball for nearly all of the '90s; Chavez has been, probably, the best in baseball for the last two years. This year, they're having about the same season in terms of overall effectiveness, at bat and in the field -- their SLOBs (that is, slugging average multiplied by their on-base average, the best measurement of a hitter) are both over 19.00. It's really jump ball as to who deserves the starting nod, but both hit with more power, reach base more often and are better established than Hillenbrand.

I don't pay too much attention to complaints that managers pick too many of their own players. A manager who hurts his players' feelings by not picking them for the All-Star team isn't going to remain a manager for long, and besides, there's a very good argument for a manager showing deference to his own team: They won the year before and thus have proven themselves as winning team players, which is, after all, what they're there for. Quite often, a space on the All-Star bench is a player's much-deserved reward for merit shown the previous season, and who would deny it to them? Did Joe Torre pick too many Yankees? Well, have the Yankees won too many pennants?

What I want to argue about is something a bit larger than who should be at third base or is a more deserving All-Star sub. What I want to know, after studying the All-Star roster and the fans' votes and the players' statistics, is: Where are all the All-Stars? We all have a tendency to downgrade contemporary players in comparison with the greats of our youth, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm not asking what happened to Willie Mays or where Joe DiMaggio has gone. What I want to know is what happened to the fabulous All-Star teams of five, six and seven years ago? Where have you gone, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, Albert Belle, Roberto Alomar and Chipper Jones?

What I mean is that just a few short years ago it seemed possible to make an All-Star team of current players who could equal, challenge or even surpass the greatest players of any previous era. At first base you had your choice of either McGwire, the greatest power hitter since Ruth, or Frank Thomas, the most consistent hitter since Stan Musial. In the National League, Jeff Bagwell was not only one of the best all-around players ever to play first base, he had, in 1994, perhaps the greatest season of any National League hitter ever. And the year before that the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra looked not only like the best centerfielder in baseball but possibly the best leadoff hitter in league history. At second base, Roberto Alomar was possibly the best American League player at the position in 60 years, and in the National League Craig Biggio looked to be equal or superior to Alomar. And in 1996 Minnesota's Chuck Knoblauch batted .341, stole 45 bases, led the American League in triples and fielding percentage, and looked as if he was en route to be the greatest second sacker since -- who? Eddie Collins? The National League had a Hall of Fame caliber shortstop in Barry Larkin, and by the middle part of the '90s the American League had A-Rod, Nomar and Derek at the same position. At third base, Chipper Jones was never going to win any Gold Gloves, but he seemed likely to surpass the great Mike Schmidt in almost every hitting category. In the outfield, Albert Belle hit a ton while Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. looked like the best all-around players the game had seen since Mantle and Mays. At catcher the National League had the greatest hitter at the position ever in Mike Piazza, while Pudge Rodriguez threatened to be the best offensive-defensive combination of any catcher at any time.

Who have I left out? Juan Gonzalez, Moises Alou, Mo Vaughn, Larry Walker, Gary Sheffield and perhaps a dozen others of near or equal quality. Of course, several of these players are still with us -- Barry Bonds more so than before -- and several others have fulfilled their early promise. But many are gone, succumbing to injuries, their own bad attitude (Albert Belle) or, God knows what (Chuck Knoblauch). It's beginning to look like Ken Griffey Jr. will never be a real Hall of Fame candidate again. Frank Thomas seems destined to go down as one of the saddest cases in baseball history. Larry Walker has done all right for himself, though we now know his intimations of all-time greatness were a delusion caused by his home ballpark. Of the ones still with us, how many look like the players we thought only a few years ago they were going to be? Is it possible that Jeff Bagwell and Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn could have aged so quickly? Chipper Jones is a young man; what happened to his power?

I guess my point is this: Who thought in the mid- or late '80s that we'd wake up at All-Star time in the year 2002 and find, for the National League, Todd Helton at first base, Jose Vidro at second base, Scott Rolen at third, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and, for the American League, Alfonso Soriano at second base, Shea Hillenbrand at third, Jorge Posada catching and Torri Hunter in the outfield? Who would have thought with all the budding superstars out there that A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko, Tony Batista, Garret Anderson, Randy Winn, Robert Flick, Damian Miller, Benito Santiago, Richie Sexson, Junior Spivey, Jose Hernandez and Adam Dunn would find their way onto an All-Star roster? I know, I'm being unfair. Several of these guys, most likely Alfonso Soriano, will have a shot at being major stars in their own right. But be honest -- have you ever seen such an undistinguished group of All-Stars, ever? Have you ever seen a list less gravid with Hall of Fame candidates?

Here's hoping that I'm misreading all of these players and that in, say, 2025, somebody digs out this column as evidence that no one appreciated how great the real talent was back in 2002.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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