MINNEAPOLIS – It's OK if Adam Wainwright grooved Derek Jeter a pitch in Tuesday night's All-Star Game. Really, it's more than OK. It's wonderful. It's great. It's the sort of canvas on which one of the greatest ballplayers of his generation, and one of the greatest New York Yankees ever, could paint another memory, which is exactly what Jeter did with a double down the right-field line. It's not unbecoming. It's not gauche. It's not beneath either of them. It's completely stinking perfect, because this is the All-Star Game, and the All-Star Game is, and always will be, an exhibition.
We say "if" because Wainwright swore up and down that his comments after exiting the game – that he "was gonna give him a couple pipe shots," or groove Jeter a pair of fastballs to start the bottom of the first inning – were wrong. And that he "made a mistake" saying them. And that he was "an idiot." Which is silly, because Wainwright actually is one of the most intelligent, accountable, candid men in the game.
The last quality, unfortunately, caused the firestorm that exploded during what was supposed to be – and what still was – Derek Jeter's night. It was his final All-Star Game, his final crack at this wonderful event muddied up annually by the dumbest rule in sports. For if home-field advantage in the World Series weren't tied to the All-Star Game – if baseball would just stop pretending that the game needs to count in order to mean something – the world would have laughed at Wainwright's initial comments, applauded him for them just like it does Chan Ho Park for throwing Cal Ripken Jr. a cookie in his final All-Star Game and kept him from the consternation that followed.
As Jeter basked in the afterglow of his night – of the almost-incredible diving play that just missed nabbing Andrew McCutchen in the first inning and the 66-second-long ovation before his first at-bat and the grand gesture by Wainwright to let it continue by stepping off the mound and the single to right in the third inning and the roar of the crowd when it realized he was coming off for good in the top of the fourth and the doffing his cap and the high-five-and-hug line in the dugout and the final curtain call, the sort that would've been saccharine if it weren't so appropriate – Wainwright sulked in the opposing clubhouse. He is the very last person who wanted to be the guy who tried to ruin Derek Jeter's Special Night.
Baseball, and commissioner Bud Selig in particular, have invested so much in making the All-Star Game into a serious event that the great oxymoron of a meaningful exhibition took with it a blameless victim as collateral damage. This was a fantastic All-Star Game. Beyond Jeter's performance, Mike Trout did his Mike Trout thing and won the MVP award that in a just world would be in his trophy case with two others. Yu Darvish threw a 56-mph curveball to Troy Tulowitzki. Miguel Cabrera bashed a home run. Twin Cities kid Glen Perkins locked down the final three outs in his home ballpark. The American League beat the National League 5-3.
The result is last for a reason: Because nobody remembers the score of All-Star Games. Quick: What's the score of the game where Bo Jackson hit his monstrous home run? Or when Carl Hubbell started struck out five straight Hall of Famers? Or Ted Williams came back from the war to homer twice? Or when Reggie Jackson hit the roof at Tiger Stadium? The All-Star Game isn't about who wins. It's about what happens in the game.
And if Adam Wainwright wanted – or didn't want – to throw Derek Jeter a fastball at 90 mph that bisected the plate, a world in which the All-Star Game score matters none would at least afford him the ability to do as much without an army of bloviators branding him a heretic. Nobody frowned on Denny McLain for giving Mickey Mantle a pitch exactly where he asked, one he whacked for his second-last home run, and with good reason.
It's not an insult to give someone a greater shot at his moment. It's a gift. It's really hard even for Jeter to hit a 90-mph fastball down the middle. Maybe he was looking slider. Perhaps the gravity of the moment struck him as the pitch arrived. Countless things waylay at-bats. Giving even a slightly better chance to those who paid hundreds of dollars a ticket to see one of the things they came to see would be positively noble.
Still, even though Wainwright admitted he understands why the media reported his initial comments as it did – because he said them that way – let's go along with his postgame explanation and assume Wainwright is telling the truth, that he misspoke. The fact he even needs to correct himself stems from this false construct baseball tries to protect, this eagerness to bring significance to an event that at its greatest teems with it.
"This game matters," Wainwright said, and he did so with a straight face because, in reality, it does. A game that featured 30 players from the NL, 32 from the AL, 21 total pitchers, none of whom went more than one inning, actually matters for something other than enjoyment and entertainment.
Two words – pipe shots – now forge the link between Jeter and Wainwright, which really is a shame, because one of those should've-been indelible moments would have served as a far better representative of their meeting. As Jeter stepped into the batter's box following his first round of applause, Wainwright placed his glove and ball on the mound and stepped away. He wanted no part in stopping the cheers by starting the at-bat. Less-aware pitchers would have marched right up the hill.
"I'll always remember it," Jeter said. "I have never faced Adam before, I haven't really talked to him, and he's one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. For him to do that during tonight's game, it says a lot about him and how much of a class act he is."
There may be no finer compliment in the baseball world than class act. Nearly every player says the same of Jeter, and living in New York for 20 years without a single woman blowing him up in a tabloid, without a single arrest on his record, without so much as an offensive thing uttered, gives him all kinds of class credentials.
It was telling, then, that when asked about the supposed pipe shots, Jeter said: "If he grooved it, thank you. You still have to hit it. I appreciate if that's what he did. Thank you." He did not clown Wainwright. He did not point out how unbecoming it would have been to sound like he was making excuses for giving up three runs in the first inning, which Wainwright copped to worrying about. Jeter thanked him, even if Wainwright's greatest error wasn't throwing the pitch but alluding to it.
And even that's not terribly grievous. If Wainwright's first words were true – if he was trying to give him a couple pipe shots – telling the world as much in no way lessens their impact. On the contrary, it's a public show of respect for Jeter, a way of saying if anyone deserves the best possible opportunity to end his 14th All-Star Game in proper fashion, it is this guy.
Other pitchers disagreed, of course, as is their prerogative. David Price said he wouldn't give Jeter a gimme if he were in the NL. Max Scherzer said he always makes hitters earn their hits. One voice stood out as eminently rational, however, in a game that's anything but. Glen Perkins, whose ovation was second-loudest to Jeter's, and who languished in his home clubhouse hours after one of the most special nights of his life, understood exactly what a great moment can mean to a person, what it can mean to a game, and why if Wainwright did indeed groove Jeter a pitch, he was in the right.
"He should do that," Perkins said, "and that's why it shouldn't count."
Whether that takes Selig leaving office this year or some other nuclear event that reinforces the absurdity of the meaningful exhibition, something must change. Whatever Adam Wainwright did, he wasn't in the wrong. And on a night like this, Derek Jeter couldn't have done any wrong. There was just one thing askew on this great All-Star night. It mattered for all the wrong reasons.