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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 16, 2009 at 11:03 AM

Will Ichiro have Mariner company in St. Louis?

ichiallstar.jpg

The latest American League votes are out for the All-Star Game, which will be held July 14 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and Ichiro (shown in this AP photo from 2007 watching the game in San Francisco with his AL teammates) is still holding down a starting spot in the outfield. He stands third, with 1,069,599 votes, trailing Jason Bay (1,494,784) and Josh Hamilton (1,162,966). Hamilton, who is on the disabled list after surgery to repair a small tear in his abdomen, might have to be replaced if he’s elected, though he is said to be recovering well and recently expressed a desire to play in the All-Star Game if he’s voted in. Whether he deserves to be there is another story. Hamilton is hitting .240 with six homers and 24 RBI. Hamilton is a great story, but this year he’s not an All-Star.

Carl Crawford is fourth at 902,105, followed by Torii Hunter (863,673) and the nostalgia vote for Ken Griffey Jr. (807,548).

Despite what I said about Hamilton, I’ve always been a proponent of using the All-Star Game to give final tributes to legendary, Hall-of-Fame caliber players. When I think back on the 15 or so All-Star I’ve covered, and the countless others I’ve watched on television,what I remember most vividly are the heart-tugging moments, like the Ted Williams tribute in Boston, Willie Mays being honored in San Francisco, the All-Century team recognized in Atlanta, and the 500-homer club being introduced in Houston. Maybe I’m just a sap, but my favorite moment of the All-Star Game each year is the pre-game introductions; they never fail to move me. It’s all down hill after that.

Sure, some game memories stand out, like Ichiro’s inside-the-park homer in San Francisco, and the tie in Milwaukee. But to me, the emotional has always been more powerful than the action. If fans want to vote in Griffey in tribute to his career, or if Commissioner Selig wants to bring him into St. Louis to honor him, I think it would be a good thing. Do you think anyone cared that Cal Ripken Jr. was hitting just .240 with four homers and 28 RBI at the All-Star break in 2001, when he and Tony Gwynn, both of whom had already announced their pending retirement, were honored in Seattle at Safeco Field? Gwynn didn’t make the NL squad, but the commissioner gave him a special achievement award during the game; Ripken was voted in as the starting third baseman, but took the field at shortstop at the behest of Alex Rodriguez — the most noble gesture of his career. Ripken also hit a homer and was named the game’s MVP. That’s probably one of the all-time great All-Star Game performances, or at least most memorable. It’s a bit trickier with Griffey, who hasn’t officially announced that this is his last year, but I think that’s a gamble worth taking by Bud Selig.

Even if Ichiro is not voted in — and he will be; Ichiro always takes a huge surge when the international votes are counted at the end — Ichiro will, without question, be named to the team for the ninth straight year. He is, after all, leading the league in hitting (at least until Joe Mauer has enough at-bats to qualify). Will any other Mariners be chosen? One thing guaranteed: It won’t be like 2001, when eight Mariners made the American League squad (today’s trivia: Name the eight players; and I’m not counting Lou Piniella, who was one of Joe Torre’s coaches. No fair Googling).

Russ Branyan, emerging out of nowhere, has built up a strong All-Star resume. He ranks second in the league in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at 1.026, trailing only Kevin Youkilis(1.073). But first base is a tough nut to crack. Youkilis and Mark Teixeira are locked in an incredibly close race in the voting, with Youkilis (1,110,366) leading Teixeira (1,109,051) by a mere 1,315 votes. I daresay they’re both going to make the team, and then there’s Justin Morneau, Carlos Pena and Miguel Cabrera. Branyan is worthy, but it’s a longshot.

No other Mariners’ position player is even in the argument. But pitching-wise, there are three, and possibly four, players to think about. Erik Bedard is fourth in the league in ERA (2.47) and his numbers are strong across the board, as are Felix Hernandez’s. And Jarrod Washburn is a darkhorse, though his hard-luck 3-5 record probably dooms him. On the relief side, David Aardsma can make a compelling case with his 1.78 ERA, 17 hits allowed in 30 1/3 innings, with 34 strikeouts, and 11 saves in 12 chances, with six holds. But unfortunately for him, there are loads of flashy closers with gaudy numbers and bigger names — Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Brian Fuentes, and some other under-the-radar guys with great numbers (Frank Francisco — 0.46 ERA, but on the DL with shoulder stiffness).

My prediction: the Mariners’ All-Stars will be Ichiro and Felix Hernandez.

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