Columnist Doesn't Care About All-Star Game

Sports analyst Bill Wolff doesn't care about the all-star game, to be played Tuesday. He's more interested in the Tampa Bay Rays. (Just don't call them the Devil Rays!)

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MIKE PESCA, host:

In William Eliot's seminal text, "Carolina Sports by Land and Water," the author speaks of facing down the devilfish. Quote, "His dark outline, distinctly marked and separated by the surrounding waters of a starry belt and phosphorus fire like some monster vampire hovering above out heads and threatening to crush us beneath his wings." Hello, sports expert, Bill Wolff.

BILL WOLFF: Hold on, just tightening my starry belt of phosphorous fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You should opt for starry suspenders of phosphorous fire. Because I want to talk not of the devilfish or even the devil ray, but the team that Major League Baseball has rebranded the Rays. This is a team that almost always loses, and yet this year, best in the American League. Why?

WOLFF: And the best story in the league.

PESCA: Best story in the league. Why are the Devil Rays, at this, the halfway point of the baseball season, why are they number one?

WOLFF: I think mainly because they pitched incredibly well. And that is because, in my view, when you are as bad as Tampa has been since its birth in 1998, you tend to get to draft high in the draft. That is, you're the worst team, you get to go first when they pick the new players. And so, Tampa has stockpiled young talent, made a few deals, and they have wound up with really good young pitching.

The most famous of them is Scott Kazmir. New York area fans will remember Scott Kazmir. The Devil Rays got him from the Mets, and he's excellent. Edwin Jackson was a guy who was going to be a big star for the LA Dodgers, fell on some hard times, but he always had tremendous talent. Andy Sonnanstine is having an unbelievable year. These young pitchers are having great years. And so, as a result of having been terrible for a very, very long time, they have a ton of talent and most of it, in my, view is pitching.

PESCA: Right.

WOLFF: So, they have really pitched the snot out of the baseball, and that's why they're number one.

PESCA: But - OK...

WOLFF: By the way, they're not number one anymore, because they've now - I mean, I can't stand doing this to you, and I know how it feels. I've got to burst your bubble. They've lost seven in a row, and they're suddenly in second place.

PESCA: I know. Yeah, it's what happens.

WOLFF: Yeah, it happens. I think - in other words, I think the Rays have been a great story. Not sure they're going to be a great story in the second half.

PESCA: It's just that every week we have, you know, three or four things to talk about, and the fourth thing is always, hey, what about those Devil Rays? And we never get to it.

WOLFF: Yeah. Right, and that's true. It's true. It's been about seven weeks, and now the Rays make it up top, and I appreciate you doing that.

PESCA: One interesting thing, though. You know, if a team is bad for long enough in other sports, I think those draft picks really have a big impact, but in baseball...

WOLFF: Happens more quickly, no question.

PESCA: But in baseball - and also in baseball, sometimes they don't - sometimes the guys draft terribly. There are fewer can't-miss prospects in baseball than in other sports.

WOLFF: True, true.

PESCA: And sometimes, the teams, you know, just don't want to sign a big contract. So, there are other things other than being terrible for so long that seem to be trending in the Devil Rays', or as they are called now, the Rays', direction. And in fact, they seem - tell me what's your assessment - but a lot of those pitchers that you named weren't acquired via the draft, but they traded for them. Scott Kazmir was a fleecing. Matt Garza was a fleecing. So, perhaps, some...

WOLFF: Edwin Jackson was not a Devil Ray product. Yeah. That is true. You are correct, and they've also made signings that have worked out fortunately for them. But they have been able to make some of the deals with some of their prospects, and in fact, they're said to have an unbelievably rich minor-league system now, so that if there is to be a trade for another player, and in my opinion, for Tampa, it will be a hitter, not a pitcher...

PESCA: OK.

WOLFF: That they will be able to make that deal because they have such a rich minor-league system of young - they're supposed to be can't-miss - young - hot, young prospects. So, no, you're right. They've made deals. Guys off the scrap heap - Joe Maddon, the manager, I guess is doing a hell of a job. I never know when a manager in any line of work is doing a hell of a job. You know, whenever things are going well, they're doing a hell of a job. When they're not doing well, they're really not doing a very good job.

PESCA: Or when they have an angry team meeting, throw a chair, and then the team wins five straight, then you can say hell of a job. But barring that throw-a-chair moment...

WOLFF: When they fire the manager and the very same players are doing much better after they fire the manager, then the manager is doing a great job. So, anyway, it's a mystery. The D-Rays are good. The Rays are really good, but I'm afraid to say they've lost seven in a row...

PESCA: Yeah.

WOLFF: In an ugly fashion, and here come Boston, and even the dreaded New York Yankees. So, I think we've done a good thing here. A very good editorial judgment by you, Pesca, to talk about the Rays today, because they can't lose today. There is no game.

PESCA: Right.

WOLFF: Or tomorrow, or Wednesday, so they're - they're going to sit right there almost in first place for at least three more days.

PESCA: Yeah. This is sure to stop their losing streak.

WOLFF: And then - and then I don't know. And then, I just don't know.

PESCA: Well, OK. So, we're talking about pitchers, do you think some people who have been following baseball are - say that this year marks a change where pitchers are in the ascendance? Look at a guy like Tim Lincecum. Look at all these teams trying to get CC Sabathia. For so long, it was all about the sluggers and that commercial where they said chicks love the long ball, but do you think we're now entering a more pitcher -heavy era?

WOLFF: Do I think we're having - no, I don't. Well, I think that offense has slowed down. It has. I mean, there are fewer runs being scored. It's trending softly toward fewer runs. Are pitchers in ascendancy? Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants is unbelievable. He's a freak of nature. He's, you know, six feet tall, and 175 pounds soaking wet, and throws the ball 100 miles an hour. I mean, he's a freak of nature, and it's great to watch him. He's certainly in ascendancy.

PESCA: Well, maybe I can ask you the question this way. I know three years ago, it was, like, hey, you want to watch some baseball players? And I would point to a bunch of hitters. I think these days, I would say, you want to get excited by baseball? Maybe two or three of the top five guys would be pitchers.

WOLFF: Yeah, and it happens that way, you know? I mean, if you think of baseball between about 1965 and about 1992, the same was true. It was a pitcher's era. And as you know, the late '60s, it was all pitchers until they had to change the rules to help the hitters. It got to be pitching dominated. Then, through the small ballparks and the steroids and all that stuff, it became about - all about the hitters. And I suppose it could - it's hard for me to know whether or not that trend has - the pendulum has shifted back toward pitching to the degree that it has in the past.

Yeah. I - I agree with you, though. I think the most exciting players to watch - I actually think the best thing to watch in baseball is the defense, not the pitching. That is, you want to see the most athletic play? Watch the defense. The diving stop, the incredible throw, the running catch, that's all defense. It's not even pitching. But I hear you.

I think that that's a fair point. I think pitching is getting better. The runs are diminishing, and it is getting more and more important. I mean, the Devil Rays are a great example - the Rays are a great example. The Devil Rays can pitch the snot out of it, can't hit it at all, and they find themselves, you know, a half game out of first place. So, it's a fair - it's a fair argument. It's a good point. I have not heard that argument made, but it's a fairly good one.

PESCA: You know, internally, the Rays will fine you a dollar if you say Devil Rays.

WOLFF: Yeah. Well, you know...

PESCA: Luckily, we don't have to pony up.

WOLFF: Thank God.

PESCA: So, this is - today, we speak on one of two days in the entire year of 365 days where there are no professional sports, the day before and after the All Star Game, the only two days in our sports saturated culture...

WOLFF: In the sports television business, it's known as hell.

PESCA: Hell. And isn't this why they - don't they time - what do they usually come out with now? I don't know. They come out with crazy reality shows to distract people sometimes.

WOLFF: Yes.

PESCA: But what are your thoughts on the All Star Game? It's a fine exhibition for fans, yes.

WOLFF: Sure.

PESCA: But do you think too much hype is given to the All Star Game, given that it doesn't count?

WOLFF: Yes. I don't care about the All Star Game. I never have cared about the All Star Game. I think the All Star Game's greatest use is after - is historical. That is, you can say how many times was such and such a player an All Star and try to rate that player versus all the other players. You know, Willie Mays made 24 All Star teams. That's very impressive. There's an index created by how many times you made the All Star Game. Other than that, I really couldn't care less about the All Star Game. It doesn't count.

The best players - the truly best players don't play the whole game. The managers just cycle all the players in so that everybody gets to play. You don't see the best players. Interleague play between the American League and the National League has diminished the exotic nature of the All Star Game. And back when we were kids, you know, if I wanted to see Chet Lemon of the Chicago White Sox play, I could see him at the All Star Game.

And that was it, because I lived in St. Louis. We didn't have the American League. Now, I see the American League all the time. I mean, I'm a National League fan. I see the American League all the time. So, there's no - there's no sexiness to seeing these guys you never saw before. The game doesn't count. I'm not a big fan of the All Star Game. I don't - I don't ever really watch it, to be honest.

PESCA: And for a kid from St. Louis, maybe this question will be right in your wheelhouse. But to add to the hype, this All Star Game, Yankee Stadium closing, I mean, is it really closing? Aren't they just going to move next door?

WOLFF: What are we ever going to do without Yankee Stadium? Well, let me just add this to that. And, you know, I say this at the risk of getting, you know, pelted with rocks and garbage as I walk down the street here in New York City. This Yankee Stadium has almost nothing to do with the Yankee Stadium that was constructed in 1923, I think, and was the house that Ruth built. The dimensions are different, every single seat is different, the aisles are different - nothing about it is the same. It was rebuilt in 1973.

This Yankee Stadium is the most overrated venue in all of sports. The Great Yankee Stadium is a generic stadium from the '70s. And yet, we, the national public, are forced to listen to how it is the great and hallowed Yankee Stadium. Well, a lot of great things have happened there. Reggie Jackson happened there. Derrick Jeter happened there. A couple of different Yankee dynasties happened there.

That's very, very nice, but this is not Fenway Park. It is not Wrigley Field, and it doesn't break my heart that they're building a new Yankee Stadium 15 feet away, across the parking lot. So, yeah, it's the final All Star Game at the house that Ruth built. No. It's the final All Star Game at the house that Steinbrenner built. The house that Ruth built went away in 1973. So, to me, the hyping of Yankee Stadium is a shanda and a fraud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Well, let's talk about - from shanda to Mitzvah, as I welcome on - I hear we might be joined by your wife, Alison Stewart?

WOLFF: She's sitting right here.

PESCA: Hey, Alison.

ALISON STEWART: It's hard to know when he says shanda and fraud.

PESCA: Yeah.

WOLFF: Shanda and fraud, it's time for Alison Stewart.

STEWART: He has his finger in the air.

WOLFF: That's right. I do. I get very emphatic.

PESCA: I hear there's - we started off talking about Devil Rays, can we now talk about sharks? Do you have some shark news to report?

STEWART: Oh my goodness. You know, we talked to you last week when we were on family vacation on Mahtha's (ph) Vineyard...

WOLFF: Shuah (ph), we were.

STEWART: And we went to go the beach kind of where they filmed the movie "Jaws," and I'll let Bill take it over from hee-ya(ph).

WOLFF: Well, we were busy getting a bottle of water when we heard a lady, a middle-aged lady, with children say, there's a shahk (ph) out there! My kids are going crazy. There's a shahk 70 yahds (ph) offshahre (ph) over there!

PESCA: Right, and you were like, a love shack? Shaquille O'Neal?

WOLFF: No. Just a shahk, shahk, you know, with a fin, a dahrsal fin. So, anyway, it turns out that there had been a shark sighting off of the beach we were at. We were...

STEWART: Big news.

WOLFF: Big news. It was in - it was on the AP wire. It was on the national news that there was a shahk attack. Now, here's what it was really like. It was like nothing. So, you couldn't go in the water, even though people were still going in the water, and the people from Massachusetts were having at it in a way that only people from Massachusetts can have at it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Which is to say they were sitting on the beach talking to each other about the shahk! Let me tell you about that shahk. It'll bite your face off. I heard those words spoken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: It'll bite your face off. Bite your nose and your eyes. It'll bite your face off. Now, the only thing that I've left out of that - that little accounting of what it's like to have a shahk sighted off Mahtha's Vineyard is add the F-word before every verb, or noun, or gerund. So, he'll bite your face off, those shahks. Shahks'll bite your nose off. They'll bite your eyes off. Now again, just add that one word you can't say.

PESCA: Right.

WOLFF: And you've got exactly what the shahk attack was really like on Mahtha's Vineyard. And then, it tuns (ph) out it was a fraud. Speaking of frauds. It was made up! It was phony baloney! But it did add a lot of spice to a Thursday afternoon.

PESCA: Yes. We've heard of the tiger shark and the hammerhead shark. This is the F-ing shark of Mahtha's Vineyard.

WOLFF: There it is. There it is. It'll bit your face off over there. Don't get near that thing. Oh, no! He'll bite your face off!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: See, I know you're smart enough. As long as you didn't hear the ba-dum ba-dum music, you knew not to worry.

WOLFF: There was no shahk. I know shahks when I see them. There's no shahk.

PESCA: All right. Thank you, Bill Wolff, sports analyst, for the report on the shahk of the new.

WOLFF: My pleasure.

PESCA: Thanks, Bill. Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: He'll bite your face off!

PESCA: He'll bite your face off. And finally, let us return once more to William Elliot, summing up his battle with the devilfish. "We might now retire from the scene in hanging up our battered harpoons among the trophies of our humble rostral column. Amuse our children with the histories of the enemy. I know not that I ever witnessed anything more picturesque than the appearance of the devilfish just before stranded." And we can say the same of the shahk.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Well, ladies and gentlemen, that is it for this hour of the BPP. We've had shahks. We've had fish. We've had filet o' fish. And we will continue on, because this is our charge. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. Once you hear that Boston accent, you can't get it out of your head. You know what seafood sounds really good in the Boston accent? Scohllops (ph). Yep. I am Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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