ST. LOUIS — A lot sure has changed since baseball’s All-Stars last pulled into the Gateway City.
Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey topped the 1966 NL batting order. It was 103 degrees in circular Busch Stadium, and Gaylord Perry got the win in relief of Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning and Juan Marichal.
And, most significantly, the National League was in the midst of winning nine straight All-Star games and 19 of 20.
When San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum throws the first pitch to Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki tonight at the new Busch — after President Barack Obama’s ceremonial toss to Cardinals star Albert Pujols — the NL will be seeking its first win in 13 years.
“At some point this streak’s going to end,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said, “but we just don’t want it to be this year.”
Welcome to one of the most one-sided rivalries in sports, what’s become the American League’s annual domination of the NL.
Even a pregame pep talk by Ernie Banks didn’t help the NL last year at old Yankee Stadium, where Michael Young’s sacrifice fly at 1:37 a.m. gave the AL a 4-3, 15-inning victory.
Now 11-0-1 since its 1996 defeat at Philadelphia — the longest unbeaten streak in All-Star history — the AL has cut the overall gap to 40-37-2 and hasn’t lost in six meetings since the winning league started receiving home-field advantage in the World Series.
“We would love to be able to snap that streak,” said Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard, a St. Louis native. “It always seems like they kind of pull it out towards the end of the game but, you know, hopefully this year it will be different.”
Even when the All-Stars aren’t playing in a stadium filled with crimson-colored seats, NL players seem to see red more often than not when they meets their AL counterparts. Since interleague play began in 1997, the AL had a 1,673-1,534 advantage, according to STATS LLC. This year’s season series went 137-114 to the junior circuit, its sixth straight winning record and ninth in 13 years.
“It’s a more powerful league, maybe, the American League,” said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who managed the AL All-Star team six times after winning pennants with the Yankees. “Not that you don’t have stars that measure up in the National League, but maybe not as many of them.”
AL dominance has not carried into October. While unbeaten in the last 12 All-Star games, the AL has won seven of the past 12 World Series. But those are best-of-seven matchups, so regular-season totals are probably a better barometer.
“For whatever reason, the numbers have been what they have been for the last 10 or 12 years. I don’t think it’s a true assessment of how well the game is played in the National League,” said career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who squandered a chance to end the NL drought three years ago in Pittsburgh, when he allowed Michael Young’s go-ahead, two-run triple with two outs in the ninth.
All-Star victories have taken on increased importance because of the connection to the World Series. In 18 of the last 23 Series, the team with home-field advantage has gone on to win.
Imagine what must be going on in the mind of AL starter Roy Halladay. With the Toronto Blue Jays willing to consider trades, he could help the AL get home-field advantage, then get dealt to an NL contender.
“Going into the postseason, it was nice to know that we had home-field advantage throughout. We just did not utilize it,” said Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon, the AL manager. “It definitely takes on a different shape because of all of that. I’m all for it. I think it makes this moment a lot more interesting, I’ll tell you that. And a little bit tighter, I’ll tell you that, too, because you’re playing for the entire league.”
Yankees captain Derek Jeter takes the contrary view, preferring the team with the better record get the extra home game. That would pose logistical challenges for baseball, which wants to finalize hotel and travel plans as far in advance as possible.
But maybe that’s thinking too far ahead for too many people.
On Monday, Howard was basking at the attention in his hometown.
He thought about hitting a St. Louis landmark and, no, it wasn’t the Gateway Arch, which rises temptingly beyond the right-center field fence but in reality is several blocks away. Rather, he remembered his Little League days at the suburban Ballwin Athletic Association. He was 12 or 13, and the home run is still talked about.
Where did the drive down the right-field line land?
“Red Lobster,” he said.
What: All-Star Game
Where: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
Starting pitchers: Tim Lincecum, Giants (10-2, 2.33 ERA) vs. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (10-3, 2.85)
TV/radio: Channel 8; WKNR 850-AM