I'm all over the place when it comes to dates.
Some are hard to pinpoint.
I can't remember, for example, exactly when I stopped listening to The Doors (though I suspect it was when I turned 21-- just like everyone else. Still sort of embarrassed how easily Jim Morrison conned me into thinking he was some sort of genius. Would he be anything more than the sixth-place finisher on American Idol today?) They just sort of fell out of the CD rotation and never returned. Or I can't give you the date when I put the brakes on cuffing my jeans (I think it was okay in sixth grade but in seventh grade it got you a seat at the lunch table with the kids who always helped the janitor and were never allowed to go on a class trip.)
But other things are easier to recall (and I'm not counting the Big Ones -- birth of kids and anniversaries. Just the knucklehead stuff, really)...
May 18th, 2001, on a flight from San Diego to Minneapolis I'm in the middle of "The Shipping News". Pulitzer Prize winner, huge best seller, everyone told me I'd love it. Well, each page was torture (I just didn't care about The Gammy Bird or a Newfoundland love story. And I knew the movie would flop, I just knew it.) So I just stopped reading the book. For good. Hadn't done that before, just seemed wrong. Turns out it was a great move. Probably I had wasted a full year of my life slogging through lousy books. No more.
Lest I completely bury the lead here's one more date -- July 13th, 1999.
The last day I ever cared about the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
To be fair I had cooled considerably on the Midsummer Classic by the time 1999 rolled around. Why? Well, if you lived in Massachusetts from 1984-1999 and had a basic cable TV package you would have had, at one time or another, access to three National League teams (Braves on TBS, Cubs on WGN and the Expos were on a Canadian channel with French-speaking announcers. I just did about 50,000 Google searches and can't find which network the Expos were on. Help me out.) So the appeal of the All-Star Game -- the chance to see guys you'd never get to see -- was gone. If you wanted to see Dale Murphy or Andre Dawson or Ryne Sandberg it was no problem. Sure, every four or five years or so you'd get a game with something interesting (1986 is a prime example of that, with Clemens vs. Gooden), but mostly it was three summer days of being annoyed that we had no real baseball because that the 50 best players in the world were playing (or not playing in some cases) in a game that meant absolutely nothing. And okay, I'll buy that the public had some interest in Mattingly vs. Gooden, or Strawberry vs. Clemens, NL vs. AL stars that you'd never get to watch. But interleague play started in 1997 and pretty much put the camel clutch on the only intriguing element remaining.
(And today? Nothing. Doesn't matter if Tim Lincecum has never faced Joe Mauer. It feels like he has. All mystery is gone in baseball.)
Can I confess that I don't even remember the announcement in August of 1997 that Fenway Park would host the 1999 All-Star Game? It had no impact on my everyday life, not even my everyday sports life. If I had to guess, my reaction was that it probably it made sense, seeing how Fenway was on its way out and this would would be the last ASG of the century (and Fenway was on the Green Mile. Stories like this one dominated the event until the Home Run Derby took over.) Could be a fun couple of days maybe, nothing more.
Then 1998 happened.
And we loved McGwire and Sosa, we all did. Totally and completely bought the whole act (with no shortage of help from a media that I think knew more than they let on at the time.) Can't be true, the Maris family loves Big Mac! Yeah, okay, it's strange that he's gone from never hitting more than 40 homers in a season to hitting 66, but he's Slammin' Sammy! He's McGwire's wacky sidekick! I remember Peter Gammons (still with some credibility in 1998) talking about how McGwire got along well with his ex-wife's new husband. And for some reason that actually mattered to me. I'm telling you, 1998 was Keyser Soze and we were all Chazz Palminteri.
But it wasn't just the chase of Maris that brought baseball back to relevancy in 1998. The Yankees won 114 regular season games and breezed through the playoffs to win World Series No. 24 (the 1986 Celtics and '98 Yankees are the two best teams in my lifetime. Is there an NFL team that cant stand up with them?) Clemens and Maddux were still in prime form. Barry Bonds had his best Conte-free season (37 homers, 130 walks, 28 steals, 1.047 OPS.) Griffey looked like a lock to shatter Hank Aaron's record -- could he get to 1,000 career homers? All that stuff was happening and it was terrific and exciting and not so many people in Boston cared about the rest of the baseball world. How come?
Pedro and Nomar.
And man did they come together at the right time. By 1998 it was pretty clear that bringing in Pete Carroll for Parcells wasn't going to work. Turns out the players didn't really need a friend as much as they needed a coach. It was season two of the Rick Pitino Experiment and it was already flying toward official disaster status. And the Bruins were doing what they did best, 85-90 point seasons with an occasional playoff series win. But never a threat to challenge for the Cup. It was time for the Red Sox to return to the head of the sports mountain. We knew that Pedro was the best pitcher in baseball, but he was still quasi under the radar by the 1999 season, hard as it is to believe. Even though he already had a Cy Young on his résumé, years pitching in front of 4K or so in Montreal had kept him hidden, sort of a real-life Sidd Finch. And Jeter had the rings and A-Rod had the stats but we really believed that Nomar was every bit their equal. All we needed was a platform to show these guys to the rest of the baseball world.
Here's what happened:
(1) A towering one-two punch threatened to make the Game itself, already considered by some to be irrelevant, basically a baseball version of the crapola that NBC used to put on between Friends and Seinfeld. First up was The Home Run Derby. If "Raging Bull" was both the peak and the beginning of the end for the greatest era of American filmmaking (1968-1980), so was McGwire sending balls into the Mass Pike for the HGH generation. Sure, we were all mesmerized by the bombs that night, but the following morning I heard real doubt about the author's authenticity for the first time. Be honest, have you bought into a Home Run Derby since?
(2) Part II was the introduction of the candidates for the All-Century Team. Aaron and Mays and Feller and Bench and every other living baseball A-Lister (though no Barry Bonds or A-Rod that night. Neither made the All-Star Team or the All-Century Team. 2009 is the first time since that neither would be playing in the game.) But Ted Williams dwarfed these legends with his "surprise" appearance to throw out the first pitch. Old and frail and seemingly free of the bitterness that made him both a .344 hitter and gave him the freedom to ignore the fans and media for much of his career, Williams needed help from Tony Gwynn to throw the ceremonial first pitch to Carlton Fisk. I think both he and the fans at Fenway knew that this was goodbye. This on top of McGwire the night before? You could have announced right there that the Game was canceled and I'm pretty sure no one would have left unhappy.
(3) Nomar was the AL starting shortstop (some serious Joseph Kennedy ballot tweaking the weeks before locked up the spot over Jeter) and got (by far) the biggest cheers in the pre-game introductions. He was hitless in two at-bats but I suspect even he doesn't remember that (and an aside -- I can't believe that anyone was surprised that Nomar got the huge love last week. Red Sox fans have proven to be pretty generous winners. You know, if Dave Roberts had fallen down things might be different. But why pick on Nomar? Two World Series titles while Nomar grew into what he is now -- the very best a career journeyman can be -- is punishment enough.)
But Pedro was the story. Listen, he was 15-3 with a 2.10 ERA, but nobody was ready for this. A master craftsman at the absolute hysterical peak of his powers. This was Springsteen at Hammersmith, or Tiger at Pebble in 2000. Two innings, six batters, five strikeouts. He hit 99 on the gun. Three MVPs (Barry Larkin, Sammy Sosa and Jeff Bagwell), plus McGwire, Matt Williams and Larry Walker had no chance that night. The NL starting pitcher was none other than Curt Schilling (and how I managed to come to grips with the death of Robert McNamara without the knowing words of ol' 38 pitches was an absolute miracle) and I think he said it best in the post-game press conference:
"How do I follow that?"
That's the perfect question for every All-Star Game since. I'm sure St. Louis will put the prom dress on and give it a shot on Tuesday, but I'm equally sure that July 14th, 2009 won't be a date to remember.