By Ernie Palladino
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So let’s review.
Adam Wainwright grooves a fastball to facilitate Derek Jeter’s storybook farewell to the All-Star Game, and then gets pilloried on Twitter for admitting to this truly magnanimous gesture.
If the old rules applied to the All-Star Game, Wainwright’s pitch and Jeter’s resultant double would not have created even a ripple of controversy. Back then, in the ancient days before 2003, home status in the World Series came on an alternating basis. A tie in 2002, caused when both teams ran out of pitchers, prompted Bud Selig to intertwine home field to the winner of this game.
Dumb decision, perhaps the dumbest of a bunch of horrible decisions the commissioner made. Why anything that happens in October should be tied to a midseason exhibition game is beyond comprehension. But because the All-Star ratings were sagging, Selig caved and immediately inflated the impact of baseball’s July showcase.
Because of this artificial sense of importance, Wainwright had to deal with some unjustified backlash to his own decision. He certainly would have served himself better by remaining silent on the subject. Be that as it may, his admission to send Jeter a little room service never should have caused the outcry of the past few days. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before — in many sports.
Pitchers have accommodated players in the past. The Tigers’ Denny McClain, on his way to winning 31 games in 1968, threw Mickey Mantle a fat one for the great Yankees’ 535th and penultimate career homer. It came in a late-season game, as meaningless as the All-Star contest should be. The Tigers were on their way to the World Series and the Yanks were finished. The only thing McClain’s decision did was allow Mantle to break a tie with Jimmie Foxx on the all-time homer list.
Others have done similar favors for outgoing greats. It’s a nice thing, a way for an opponent to honor long-time accomplishments. No records are broken. No games are lost because of it. No spots in the standings are reversed.
Versions of the grooved pitch happen in other sports, too. In 1998, the University of Connecticut’s leading scorer, Nykesha Sales, fell one point short of the school’s all-time career scoring record when she ruptured her Achilles tendon. UConn coach Geno Auriemma set it up with Villanova coach Harry Perretta to allow Sales, cast and all, to set up under the Wildcats’ basket on the opening tap and score uncontested to give her the record. Villanova was then allowed to score its own uncontested basket, after which the teams started playing for keeps. As nice a gesture as that was, it raised a week-long storm of controversy over the legitimacy of women’s records.
Like McClain’s pitch, Sales’ basket didn’t affect the game. And it wasn’t a national record that Sales broke; it was the school record. In other words, a big “So what?” The debate was needless, and cries that Auriemma violated the integrity of sports in some manner were nothing short of stupid.
About the only “grooved pitch” that raised any justified controversy was Brett Favre’s flop for Michael Strahan during the last game of the 2001 season. In the closing moments of that meaningless game against Green Bay, with Strahan a sack away from breaking Mark Gastineau’s all-time, single-season mark of 22, the defensive end bore down on Favre. The quarterback saw his friend and hit the dirt, giving Strahan the record at 22 1/2.
League records hold major weight and should not be fooled with. Then again, Strahan was going to get Favre anyway. The Giants had, for all purposes, lost that game to finish 7-9, and Green Bay had already clinched their playoff spot. No real harm was done.
Wainwright hurt no one. It wasn’t Jeter who drove in those three first-inning runs. If Selig hadn’t attached extra, artificial meaning to what should be a celebratory showcase of MLB’s first-half stars, Wainwright’s pitch never would have caused anyone to raise an angry voice.
Instead, we had the nonsense of the last two days.
Whoever succeeds Selig should do everybody a favor and untie the World Series and the All-Star Game. It’ll make for a more pleasant experience on both ends.
As for grooving pitches, Wainwright wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. As long as it’s in good clean fun, let’s all lighten up.
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