Baseball rivalry chills out

It was a shock a year ago to pick up the newspaper and see Ichiro Suzuki standing at Safeco Field in a visitor’s uniform. It was disconcerting enough that he was not wearing the Mariners’ colors. The fact that he was dressed as a New York Yankee poured salt on the wound.

Disdain for the Yankees, however, doesn’t exactly put a team or its fans in an exclusive club.

It has been ages since rivalries were commonplace in baseball. The few existing two-fisted rivalries — rising to the level of Red Sox v. Yankees — are carryovers from a time when Giants and Dodgers played in New York and Brooklyn, and the Cards and Cubs competed in an eight-team National League.

Sure, certain franchises are frequently locked in pennant races. But the key to rivalry is to zealously root against the other team, even when your hometown heroes are out of the running.

So — see! — Mariner fans could qualify.

The faded grandeur of baseball’s All-Star game — being played in New York on Tuesday — underscores how much drama has been drained from the game. Author and baseball fanatic Will Leitch describes his boyhood view of the event:

“The All-Star Game united the gods in one location, at one time, in a way that’s breathtaking for a young baseball fan. It was ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ when Daffy Duck and Donald Duck played a piano duet together…”

These days, baseball struggles to make the All-Star Game matter. It highlights a telegenic home run contest and has begun awarding World Series home-field advantage to the winning league.

But it is no longer exotic to see players from different leagues play against one another. Inter-league play is pervasive, and big-name players are no longer the exclusive assets of a single league, much less a single team. A “franchise” slugger may hop from St. Louis to Anaheim. An ace pitcher may be legendary in Seattle but close out his career in Phoenix. And so on.

All-Star rosters are comprised of interchangeable parts, and the only thing that truly divides the leagues is the designated hitter rule.

Now, Seattle fans know that Higher Powers decreed this rule — or why else would Edgar Martinez have been placed on this earth? But National League fans fancy themselves purists. As the title character in “Bull Durham” spouted:

“I believe in the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curveball, high fiber … I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.”

Now, them’s fightin’ words.

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