With the Nationals still atop the National League East, there has been much talk lately about the All-Star Game and which Nats deserve to go.
However, it’s a safe bet that no one in a Washington uniform will be voted into the starting lineup, since none of the regulars is close to the lead at any position. That leaves pitchers, the team’s main strength this season, and reserves. Their fate is up to NL manager Tony LaRussa and his staff.
On the mound, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez certainly are deserving. But among the potential reserves, Bryce Harper is creating the most buzz in blogs, message boards and national columns. His aggressive style of play and his success have made him popular among fans, so if he is on the ballot for the The Final Vote, in which fans pick the last All-Star, he has a good chance. He might even be named to replace an injured player.
But what if Harper does make the NL All-Star team as a rookie? What could we expect of a 19-year-old in his second season of professional baseball? Just making an All-Star team is difficult for a rookie, and playing a key role, let alone excelling, is rare for a position player. In the 82 previous All-Star Games, only 57 non-pitchers and 36 pitchers have made the game as rookies.
Several rookie pitchers, like Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 and Dwight Gooden in 1984, have turned in multiple scoreless innings. But first-year position players have rarely been factors. Some of the greatest players in the history of the Midsummer Classic, like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Cal Ripken Jr., weren’t selected in their first seasons, and even some of the game’s biggest stars were disappointments as All-Star rookies.
The first was Joe DiMaggio, in 1936. The Yankee Clipper would play in 11 All-Star Games and hit a crucial home run in 1939. But that day at Braves Field in Boston, DiMaggio went 0-for-5 as the American League lost for the first time, 4-3.
Fred Lynn made the All-Star team on his way to AL Rookie of the Year in 1975. Lynn went on to become one of the Midsummer Classic’s all-time leaders and won the MVP award in 1983 when he hit the first All-Star grand slam. But he started 0-for-2 with a strikeout in a 6-3 AL loss.
Another eventual All-Star MVP, Frank Robinson, was a rookie starter in 1956 with Cincinnati, but went 0-for-2 in a 7-3 NL win. Future MVPs Johnny Bench in 1968 and Gary Carter in 1975 didn’t even get to bat - they were ninth-inning defensive replacements.
There have been some rookie successes. Richie Ashburn of the Phillies led off the 1948 game with a single, stole second and scored on Musial’s home run for short-lived 2-0 NL lead. Then there was Dick Wakefield of the Detroit Tigers in 1943. He was named to a war-depleted AL team and started when AL manager Joe McCarthy reacted to charges of favoritism by benching all of his Yankees for the entire game. Wakefield went 2-for-4 with an RBI double in a 5-3 AL win.
In modern times, Steve Sax in 1982 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 each had a hit as their respective teams won, but were not huge factors in those games.
Harper has certainly lived up to most fans’ expectations in what has so far been a spectacular rookie season, and he’s made a good case for playing among the game’s elite next month in Kansas City. But it would be truly historic if he becomes anything more than a bit player on one of baseball’s biggest stages. Still, in what is looking like a dream season for Harper and the Nationals, anything is possible.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.