Someone forgot to tell Derrek Lee. Someone forgot to tell Dontrelle Willis, Bobby Abreu and Andruw Jones. Somebody forgot to tell them, remind them, that the best days of baseball have long since passed. For with every inflated controversy (steroids, Kenny Rogers) that has befallen baseball as of late, there has been an astounding number of promising young stars ready and more than willing to hoist the game upon their shoulders and return it to its once lofty heights.
Case in point: last week’s All-Star Game in Detroit. There were thirteen first time starters, the most since 1933. Nearly every one of those starters is having the first of what looks like to be many career years. Just look at Derrek Lee. He is channeling the ghost of Carl Yastrzemski (who in 1967 was the last big leaguer to win a Triple Crown) with his unbelievable first half, leading the majors in nearly every single significant batting statistic.
There is also fan favorite David Ortiz. The Boston Red Sox first baseman is once again putting up Ruthian numbers, while at the same time pushing his team into first place in their division and further away from the now almost forgotten chants of “1918.” Throw in the names of Chad Cordero, Brian Roberts and Miguel Cabrera (what, never heard of them? Just wait, you will) and you have an All-Star game roster that may eventually rival the now legendary 1971 lineup that produced six Hall of Famers.
What makes this current regeneration of talent and skill in Major League Baseball so remarkable is that only a couple of years ago it didn’t seem possible. Baseball had unquestionably become a power game, a game of brawn over brains. Home runs were cake, high scoring was the norm and good pitching was as rare as, well, good pitching.
However, to examine baseball at mid-season this year is to find a game that is once again being reborn. Miguel Tejada has moved into the slot that Cal Ripken Jr. once so brilliantly filled. Aramis Ramirez is putting up stats that would make Mike Schmidt proud. Scott Podsednik is running the bases like no one has since Vince Coleman.
Moreover, baseball has returned back, if not to its origins, than at least to its heyday. Once more the sport has become an evenly paced, methodical and dramatic exhibition of intelligence and talent. And the games themselves have been dictated by precision and execution (stolen bases, singles and doubles, the hit-and-run) rather than the long ball.
Most importantly for baseball, all of this has occurred without the requisite sluggers, who for the last decade both commanded the world’s attention and drew the ire of purists and cynics alike. Barry Bonds is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Sammy Sosa has been dropped to the bottom of his team’s batting order and his relevance as a hitter has openly been called into question. Jason Giambi has been a chameleon. Yet, for every player that has been beset by bad luck or personal failure, another has immediately risen up and taken hold of the reigns. For every Giambi there has been a Travis Hafner.
This is where baseball is at right now and it is a decidedly good place. There is a youth movement abound. Names that sound foreign at first will linger and over time become familiar. Some of those same names may even become legendary. Derrek Lee may not have the same ring to it as Mickey Mantle or Frank Robinson. Andruw Jones may not in the present sing to the heart like Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. But over time, they just might.