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Wishing Upon a Star
By Michael Malone
Special to Page 2
Last night's All-Star Game featured eight Mariners, six Yankees and, pitifully, one Met.
Major League Baseball installed the one-player-per-team minimum rule for the All-Star Game so that the have-nots of the baseball world would have their day in the sun -- night in the floodlight, more accurately -- just like the big boys. For the have-nots' fans, the All-Star Game is more than a well-deserved respite from viewing bad baseball; there's the pride of watching your player compete alongside the game's premier talent.
Much as I did a few decades ago, young fans beg their parents to stay up until midnight to see their lone rep enter the game, hoping he'll do something heroic with his one at-bat or one batter faced, and earn a scrap of respect for your miserable team. We find tremendous pride in watching the Freddie Pateks, Atlee Hammakers and Vladimir Guerreros of our respective markets drive a double to the gap or strike out a formidable slugger.
With a hefty payroll and the National League pennant in their possession, the Mets have no purpose residing in that have-not category. Having just one All-Star was, like pretty much the entire first half, a bitter pill for Mets fans to swallow.
Piazza's much-ballyhooed showdown with the loathsome Roger Clemens fizzled. While no true baseball fan ... well, maybe a few of us ... truly wanted to see a Battle of Seattle heavyweight bout, it would've been nice to at least see Piazza do more than pop up one of Clemens' numerous weak outside fastballs.
Lord knows the Mets, and their fans, have ingested their share of foul-tasting pills throughout the years, and few clubs have benefited more from the one-player-minimum rule. In six of the seven seasons after the Tom Seaver trade in 1977 -- New York's own Curse of the Bambino, perhaps -- the Mets sent just one guy to the All-Star Game. Like Piazza in 2001, it was usually a catcher who got the Mets' sympathy nod: the unspectacular but gritty John Stearns.
Known by his teammates as "Bad Dude," Stearns played defensive back at the University of Colorado, and brought his gridiron mentality to the diamond. Undoubtedly the biggest hit of his career came in 1977, when Stearns laid his own Tomahawk Chop on Braves' mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa, running onto the field and tackling the Indian as he pranced through his pregame war dance.
"It was just the Dude being the Dude," explained Stearns' boss at the time, Mets rookie skipper Joe Torre. The year 1982 was a great one for the Dude; not only did he receive his fourth and final All-Star selection, but his Indian nemesis was rendered Noc-A-homeless when Ted Turner, much like the Dutch in Manhattan centuries before, razed the Chief's teepee to install more seats at Fulton County Stadium.
As the only second-half drama for Mets fans would be seeing if their team could avoid triple figures in the loss column, they hoped and prayed Stearns would make the most of his annual late-inning cameo on the national stage. Hit a homer off Goose Gossage? Gun down Rickey Henderson stealing? Perhaps Bad Dude would lay out the San Diego Chicken with a perfectly executed cross-body block.
Undaunted by the presence of Hall-worthy teammates Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Nolan Ryan, the 24-year-old Mazzilli made the most of his ephemeral run with the big dogs. Coming to the plate in the eighth, Maz rocked a homer to tie the game, then drove in the winning run an inning later, working out a bases-loaded walk against cross-town rival Ron Guidry. That Mazzilli lost the MVP award to Dave Parker, by virtue of a pair of strong throws from the Pirate outfielder, did little to sully the midsummer night's dream for Maz and Met fans alike.
Twenty-two years later, we're back in Seattle. A lot has changed in the Emerald City since then: Grunge came and went, a movie based there rendered every sports headline writer in America Witless in Seattle, and the Mariners went from perennial 100-game losers to the most dominant team in baseball. Hopefully someone among the Safeco faithful remembered to raise a cup of Redhook to Bruce Bochte last night, as this year's spectacle featured seemingly every Seattlite but Niles Crane.
Torre, Mazzilli and Stearns were there as well -- Torre managing the American League, Mazzilli one of his coaches, and Stearns, who works for the Mets, coaching the Nationals. "Works" might be a bit of a stretch; as the Mets third base coach during this anemic season, Stearns gets less action than Dice Clay at the Lilith Fair.
But Mets fans, just like Tigers fans, Devil Rays fans and, way back when, Mariner fans, are trained to look for the positives. Sure, we only had one guy play last night. But at least he got his lame pop-up in early, and we got to bed well before midnight.
Michael Malone is a senior editor at Playboy.com, and his work has appeared in New York Magazine, Stuff, Gear, The San Francisco Examiner, Time Out and Rugby Magazine. He never once skipped school after staying up late to watch the All-Star Game.
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