The All-Star Game has gotten serious. Torii Hunter blames himself.
For the players, the All-Star Game used to be about having a good time and putting on a good show, win or lose, sort of like the NBA does at its midseason gala.
"It used to be like the dunk contest, guys having fun, joking around, making people laugh. [You'd] wear your helmet backwards," the five-time All-Star outfielder said. "Now, you have guys out there playing their butts off, getting intense. You're trying to get that home-field advantage."
And it might not have happened, the former Twin believes, if he hadn't seized the spotlight so memorably a dozen years ago.
Hunter was patrolling center field at Miller Park in Milwaukee, the Red Sox' Derek Lowe on the mound, when Barry Bonds came to the plate in the first inning. On a 1-1 pitch, Bonds crushed a sinker to right-center and it came soaring out over Hunter's head.
"I knew he hit it pretty hard, so I just took off at a trot. Then I saw it blowing back from the wind coming through [the outfield panels], and I thought I had a chance. I got to the wall, jumped up and got it," Hunter remembers. "Just to hear Ichiro [Suzuki, the right fielder] say something in English that was not good — which was good — I thought that was pretty cool."
Bonds disagreed, but in the spirit of the game, he stopped near second base and waited for Hunter to trot past, then picked him up and threw him over his shoulder in mock anger.
"One of the best hitters ever to play the game throws me over his shoulder — it was a great moment," Hunter said of Bonds, who homered off Toronto's Roy Halladay two innings later. "It's something I'll never forget, and I'm pretty sure a lot of people watching it will never forget."
But Hunter remembers it for another reason, too. The game remained deadlocked 7-7 after 11 innings, and managers Bob Brenly and Joe Torre both said they were out of pitchers. The game was declared a tie. Major League Baseball and especially Commissioner Bud Selig were heavily criticized for allowing the game to become so meaningless and insubstantial.
As a way to counter that complaint and sell the game as important again, Selig declared the next season that the league that won the All-Star Game would be awarded home-field advantage in that fall's World Series.
Bonds' home run would have averted the tie, Hunter figures, and probably avoided the fallout.
"If I don't catch it, we're still just playing for fun, the way it should be," Hunter said. "I definitely think I had something to do with that, and I hate that. I don't want to be known for that."
Still, he'll always be happy to be known as an All-Star. It changed the course of his career, Hunter said.
"Being selected the first time that year, after going through all I did to get to the majors, that's the first moment I had when I felt like, hey, those guys recognize me, they respect me. I belong," Hunter said. "I went home and I had all these calls on my [answering] machine, congratulations. That's when I felt like I had arrived. I showed people I can really play this game."