- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

Those players cared about winning that game.

When’s the last time an All-Star Game in any professional sport was so compelling and featured so much effort and energy from its participants? Especially considering this one went on for nearly five hours?

Between all the bang-bang plays, the defensive wizardry, the baserunning hustle and the clutch relief pitching, an uninformed fan might well have assumed this was a postseason game, not a midsummer exhibition.

From the moment eventual MVP J.D. Drew homered in the seventh to tie it 2-2, the All-Star Game became a tight, tense duel between the National and American leagues. It made for great theater, and it seemed like everyone in uniform wanted to be the hero.

How else do you explain Pittsburgh center fielder Nate McLouth firing a bullet to the plate to nail Tampa Bay’s Dioner Navarro in the bottom of the 11th?

Or Russell Martin (quickly becoming the best all-around catcher in baseball) making a nifty catch of McLouth’s throw while blocking the plate, one of several big-time plays from the Dodgers backstop?

Or Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman playing six innings at third base for the first time in his career — and playing the position like he had been there all his life?

Or pride of the Yankees Derek Jeter, who came out of the game in the sixth, leaning over the dugout railing until the very end, breathlessly anticipating the evening’s outcome as if his season depended on it?

Or Terry Francona and Jim Leyland, counterpart AL managers, embracing like schoolkids when Justin Morneau slid in safely with the winning run?

Make a case that any of those guys didn’t care about the outcome? You can’t.

Now the brass over at MLB headquarters (led by commissioner Bud Selig) will attribute all this to the fact that homefield advantage in the World Series was on the line. Selig’s brainchild following the embarrassing All-Star tie in 2002 has given the Midsummer Classic new meaning, and surely the competitive fire displayed at Yankee Stadium was in part a reflection of that.

But let’s not attribute all of it to the “This Time it Counts” theme.

Plenty of those guys involved in the defining moments of last week’s game represented teams with little to no chance of playing in late October. McLouth, Guzman, Michael Young (who has produced two All-Star game-winning hits in three years), Miguel Tejada and George Sherrill don’t play for contenders, but you wouldn’t have known that the way they competed during extra innings.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget these are the top athletes in their profession, and they don’t reach these heights unless they own the competitive desire to give their best effort 100 percent of the time.

The spirit of competition is what made this All-Star Game so great for all of them to play and for everyone to watch.

This time it counts? Sure, but not because homefield advantage was at stake.

It counted because to the best baseball players in the world it always counts.

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