2003 All-Star Game
After another first-half season of "un-fan-friendly" baseball including controversies over corked bats, the lingering threat of team contractions and accusations of unfair trade practices, Major League Baseball's marketing division attempted to restore the fan's faith in the game and make amends for the 2002 debacle that had ended in a 7-7 tie after both leagues ran out of available pitchers. To add more meaning to the fledgling exhibition, the 2003 Midsummer Classic slogan read "This Time It Counts" and for the first time in professional baseball history, home-field advantage in the World Series would be granted to the winner. The enticing proposal proved to be more than just a marketing ploy as the last team to overcome the "home-field curse" was the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had beaten the odds (and the Baltimore Orioles) while away in 1979.
As both teams took to the diamond at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, many fans were anxious to see the novel concept in action. Managers Dusty Baker and Mike Scioscia, both agreed that more strategy would be required than in previous contests and that a conservative approach to the bench was an absolute necessity. No longer would the integrity of the game be compromised by a skipper's unwritten obligation to "get everyone in" and come October 18th (Game 1 of the 2003 World Series) fans everywhere would see exactly how much it meant.
The first half of the game resembled more of a pitcher's clinic as the men on the mound clearly dominated the game's best hitters. National League starter Jason Schmidt defined pitch efficiency in the first inning after retiring Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Delgado with five quick pitches en route to a two-shutout-inning effort. The American League's aces responded as well and the game remained 0-0 thanks to some clutch fielding by their teammates. The first defensive highlight of the night came in the top of the second, when American League first baseman Delgado extended over the wall into the photographers' section (foul territory) to snag a Gary Sheffield popup. Later in the top of the fourth, American League right fielder Suzuki ran and leapt at the warning track (ala Willie Mays) to snatch a screaming line drive by Albert Pujols.
Finally, the American League managed to break through the scoreless stalemate with a Delgado single (for the 1-0 advantage) in the third, but the National League answered back with a run-scoring rally of their own and looked to be comfortable heading into the eighth with a 6-4 lead. Things quickly became uncomfortable though as Dodgers closer Eric Gagne surrendered a one-out double to Garret Anderson, who was removed for pinch-runner Melvin Mora, who scored on a double by Vernon Wells to make it 6-5. Then, unlikely hero Hank Blalock stepped up to the plate and hit the first pinch-hit homer in an All-Star Game since 1995 to seal the National's fate (7-6) and home-field advantage for his American League brothers.
One night after winning the Home Run Derby, the man who had set the American League comeback finale in motion, Garret Anderson, was named the games Most Valuable Player (Ted Williams Award). Anderson came just one triple shy of hitting for the cycle after going three-for-four with a home run and two runs batted in. It was the first time that a Derby winner had homered in the All-Star Game since Frank Thomas accomplished the feat at The Ballpark in Arlington in 1995. In the end, the American League extended its unbeaten streak in the Midsummer Classic to seven and looked forward to the Fall Classic, which would start (and possibly finish) in their own home.