CINCINNATI -- While I was sitting on the plane departing from LaGuardia Airport in New York on my way to Cincinnati for the 2015 MLB All-Star Game festivities, I couldn't help but feel conflicted about this year's American League squad. As a Yankees fan, I was pleased to see that Mark Teixeira (22 homers) had overcome recent injuries and returned to form as one of the elite first baseman in the game. The addition of Brett Gardner to the team was also cool because Gardy has been a solid leadoff hitter, stolen base king and flashed a super glove in center field for NY since breaking in with the Bronx Bombers one season before their last championship in 2008. By FanGraphs' measures, Brett Gardner has been the fourth-most valuable outfielder in the American League. By Baseball-Reference's measures, Gardner has been the most valuable outfielder in the American League.
Reliever Dellin Betances has been a bullpen godsend and is probably the closer of the future for the Yankees who wondered what life would be like after Mariano Rivera. Among relievers, Betances has the fourth-best K/9 rate of 14.57. He's thrown the fifth-most innings and, according to Fan Graphs, as June ended, Betances' 1.8 WAR was the best out of any bullpen arm, with the Reds' Aroldis Chapman the closest at 1.4. Betances was also a rookie All-Star in 2014. The Yankees drafted him as a starting pitcher out of high school in the eighth round of 2006 and paid him $1 million, but he turned into a dominant reliever in the minors in the 2012 Arizona Fall League.
All of these guys have done their part to help guide the somewhat surprising Yankees to a 48-40 record and a three-game lead in the AL East standings; but none of them has been as valuable to the Yankees as Alex Rodriguez, who at age 39 has returned from an MLB-record suspension for PED abuse to supply the power (18 homers) and intimidation that the Yankees lacked in the third spot of their lineup in his absence.
The fact that A-Rod was snubbed from a 15th all-star appearance by Royals manager Ned Yost is just down right foul.
A-Rod should be here. At least he was nominated for "Best Comeback Athlete" at The ESPYs. That's some recognition and an indication of how his remarkable bounce back is touching people and changing their negative perceptions of him.
He is the epitome of a guy who has seen the bottom, survived the turbulence, doubt and disgrace and recovered to shine a bright light not only on MLB and the Yankees, but on all suspected steroid cheats who have had brilliant careers disregarded and discredited because of involvement in an era of baseball that was a joint effort by the players, managers and league front office, who all allowed the activity to go on so that they could make money. It's time to give A-Rod some props for being the same player he was when he was being accused of juicing.
He hasn't failed a test, is among the league leaders in homers and RBI and has been a model citizen and true leader in the Yankees clubhouse. His manager and teammates are singing his praises and if baseball's hierarchy had a clue, they would use A-Rod as an example of ultimate redemption and character redefinition. In his own way, he is a hero to many young kids. His story gives hope to anyone who has made mistakes in life and sullied their reputation.
With the exception of the postseason, all-star week is my favorite time of the baseball season. It's when all of the players that have perfected the hardest skill in sports -- hitting a baseball -- are lauded and celebrated for their dominance. I'm usually like a kid in an Xbox store, waiting to get a rare glimpse of baseball's kings all in one place. Even as a reporter covering games, I still get engulfed in the moment and nostalgia of the Midsummer's Classic. Before ESPN and every team in every market -- big and small -- had their own regional cable station, before social media and the downsizing of an increasingly populated world, the all-star game was the rare time when you got to see the game's unheralded superstars on center stage. Players such as Rod Carew, who for a long time was a great player living in baseball obscurity in Minnesota, and Fred McGriff, an all-time prolific slugger who played in Canada for the Toronto Blue Jays and got very little national love. There's also the retiring stars who get all-star nods despite having statistical seasons that fall short of all-star caliber, but are rewarded by the fans and managers for past services to the game -- a la Derek Jeter in 2014.
Baseball is usually on point with satisfying the fans' desires and playing into those story lines that transcend the actual game. In the case of this year's game, MLB has egregiously dropped the ball by excluding the more than deserving A-Rod. We've heard every possible excuse as to why he was excluded, but it still doesn't justify a utility guy with less than a handful of homers making the game and a guy who is Top 5 All-Time in homers getting the shaft despite a remarkable and unexpected season.
It's just another example of a baseball league that is increasingly hypocritical. Inviting A-Rod to the game would have been the best thing in the world for baseball and the unsettled mixed feeling about the steroid era and the great players who now suffer for being a part of it. Very few current players have an issue with A-Rod. The new regime of ballers who grew up during the PED era still idolize the guy and at the very least "respect his baseball" acumen as St. Louis pitcher Trevor Rosenthal said, and guys who played before or during A-Rod's era such as former Yankees star and current LA Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly don't have a problem with him shining on baseball's biggest celebrity stage.
"Playing in the All-Star game is a great feeling because it tells you that you are one of the elite players in the game," says Mattingly. "I don't think there would have been anything wrong with A-Rod being here for sure, but in a different sense there are probably 10 or 11 guys every year that we say should have been here and they were just on the border of getting in and then you argue about the guy chosen over him or the one he's replacing. He put up the numbers to be here. It's hard to argue, so I don't think it would be a bad thing at all if he was here."
Obviously MLB didn't get the memo and him not being a part of the festivities (at least as the only 600-homer guy involved in the Home Run Derby) is as big a black eye on baseball as anything the accused PED dudes ever did.
Either way, the fans and the game of baseball are the ones being cheated...again.