September 22, 2023

All-Star nods are nice, but these are the compliments that really resonate

SEATTLE — Then, just halfway through his rookie season, Julio Rodríguez introduced himself to the wider baseball world last year at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. And in general, the baseball world was in love. He exited the Midsummer Classic a superstar and went on to secure AL Rookie of the Year honors.

A year later, with the All-Star Game on his home field, it seemed like you couldn’t go a block in downtown Seattle without seeing his face. Suffice to say, the people who have seen him play are fans.

“I feel like a lot of people say a lot of nice things,” said Rodríguez this week when asked about the best compliment he’s ever received on his game. Julio is no more humble than he needs to be, but here he is just being honest. Still, some praise means a little more than most.

While Rodríguez played in his first All-Star Game in 2022, the Angels’ Mike Trout appeared in his 10th. Rodríguez took the opportunity to ask Trout about his experience of quietly dominating the sport for a decade.

“And he actually kind of encouraged me,” said Rodríguez. “He was like, ‘Whatever you need, you already have it. So just go out there and believe in yourself.’”

The sentiment may not have been particularly refined, but the source made it special.

“Growing up, he was That boy. He’s still that guy!” Rodriguez said. “So it was really cool to hear that from him.”

“You got a good ass, man”

All-Stars, by definition, have had ample opportunity for people to offer them admiration. The event itself is a day-long showcase and celebration of their individual greatness. More than any (perhaps more important) team achievement, being named to an All-Star roster is unadulterated recognition: Hey, you’re great at what you do.

But for the All-Stars themselves, the compliments that mean the most are usually the ones they receive not in the form of awards, but from each other. And they sometimes come at the most unexpected times.

“We were in the playoffs and I just pitched Game 2 against the Tigers in Oakland,” said Sonny Gray, who is an All-Star this year for the Minnesota Twins at age 33 but debuted with the Oakland A’s in 2013 when they went to the Division Series.

The rookie at the time pitched eight shutout innings in an A’s 1-0 victory, but a brawl broke out at the next game in Detroit.

“I was young. I didn’t really know what was going on, and everybody’s kind of yelling at each other, and I’m kind of in the back,” Gray said. Then the team’s interpreter, Ariel Prieto, found him too middle of the fight.

He said, “Hey, Sonny, Miggy wants to see you!” Miggy wants to see you!’”

Miggy is, of course, Miguel Cabrera. At the time, he was playing in what would become his second consecutive MVP season, with 10 years in the major leagues already under his belt.

“I go to Cabrera and he says, ‘Hey, hey!’ I’m like ‘What?’ He says, ‘You got some good shit, man. You got some good s***,’ Gray recalled. ‘Thank you, Mr. Cabrera. Appreciate that.'”

Cabrera, a 21-year veteran and future Hall of Famer who is on a farewell tour this season, apparently hasn’t been shy about cheering up young players — much to their delight. Austin Riley is now a two-time All-Star after playing the entire Braves infield this week in Seattle as part of an eight-player Atlanta contingent. But just a few years ago, Riley was a 21-year-old hoping to make the team.

As spring training came to a close in 2019, Cabrera ran into Riley and asked if he would be on the Opening Day roster.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know. We’ll see,'” Riley said. “He said, ‘If you were on our team, I’d make sure you were there.'”

As it turned out, Riley hadn’t broken camp with the Braves, but he was called up later that season. Anyway, “I thought it was kind of nice to hear from him,” he said.

“We have no idea how to get you out”

For other All-Stars, the most memorable compliments are those that confirm a point of pride – or allay a concern.

Marcus Semien, one of a record five Texas Rangers voted 2023 All-Star Game starters, is baseball’s modern-day Iron Man. Now 32 years old, his dedication to taking the field every game, a growing rarity in the sport, is widely known. So, for Semien, his favorite compliments are the ones that reflect “my work ethic and how I bring the same intensity every day,” he said.

Even more meaningful is when that old-school mentality is recognized by the old-school executives who modeled that kind of commitment, like Bob Melvin, when Semien played at Oakland, and now Bruce Bochy with the Rangers.

Shane McClanahan is a two-time All-Star and has been named the Tampa Bay Rays’ Opening Day starter twice in his first three seasons. But on a team with eternal competitor aspirations and a need to maximize every ounce of his ability, he’s worried about his weight.

“Because as a pitcher, a starting pitcher, I work once every five, six, sometimes seven days, and I don’t want to be the weak link,” McClanahan said. So the best compliment? “I was told I was going all out, especially from teammates.”

It took Nick Castellanos nearly a decade to make his first All-Star team. After earning Rookie of the Year votes in 2014, it wasn’t until 2021 that he was named an All-Star. Last year, he struggled in his first season after signing a $100 million contract with the Phillies, but he was back in the All-Star Game this season at the age of 31.

It means a lot to him that multiple coaches and managers have told him, “Your game is aging well,” as he put it.

“I like that, you know, because to be consistent in baseball for a long time, you have to do your business the right way,” said Castellanos. “If you don’t, you better be really talented, or you’ll get kicked out.”

Ultimately, for athletes, the highest form of flattery is when your rivals are just really, really frustrated about having to meet you.

“They’re always catchers,” former NL MVP Freddie Freeman said of those whose words resonate with him. As a first baseman, he gets a chance to chat with opponents, and about a decade into his playing career, he began to notice a particularly satisfying small talk with catchers reaching base.

“It’s always, ‘We have no idea how to get you out in the pitchers’ meetings.’ I think that’s the biggest compliment you can get — when you’re told they don’t know how to play you,” Freeman said. that you come out.'”

Even as he smiled his way through his seventh All-Star Game media appearance, Freeman stopped handling his success too gaudy. He chose not to specify the first – or really any – time that has happened.

After all, he doesn’t want the pitchers to find out he knows they’re afraid of him.

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