A few days before the brightest stars in baseball head to Kansas City, the All-Star Game has already seen several curve balls come its way.

From the surprising dominance of knuckle ball pitcher R.A. Dickey to the emergence of rookie Mike Trout and controversy surrounding fellow young buck Bryce Harper’s spot on the roster, baseball’s most famous heavy hitters seem to be an All-Star afterthought. 

Rookie vs. Rookie

Well hot diggity dog, look who snuck his way onto the NL All-Star roster?  Yes Harper-haters, the Nationals stand-out 19-year-old weaseled his way into a trip to Kansas City, thanks to Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton who will miss the game and undergo knee surgery.  Bryce Harper has felt the heat on a national level since gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, and I’d say he’s met the challenge in his first season in the Majors. 

In 63 games, the right fielder is batting .282 with 8 home runs, 25 RBI and .472 slugging.  

Over in the AL, fellow rook Mike Trout blows Harper out of the water, statistically speaking.  The 20-year-old is hitting .342 with 12 HR, 40 RBI and .564 SLG in 64 games, not to mention his excellent fielding skills.  Oh ya, he also leads the AL with 26 stolen bases. 

While Trout had long been considered a stud by baseball insiders, he was relatively unknown to those outside “the know.”  Trout didn’t face nationwide pressure the way Harper has, or the expectations of carrying an entire big league ball club. 

Anyone in their right mind agrees that Trout is an All-Star (despite not making it as a starter) but the debate rages on in regard to Harper. 

Being selected to an All-Star team isn’t only about statistics.  It’s about representing each team in the league.  Sometimes it is strictly numbers based, other times it’s a popularity contest (decided by the fans), and once in a while the game is used to show respect for a player’s overall career rather than his accomplishments in that season.

What’s wrong with selecting Harper, whose numbers are absolutely respectable?  More importantly, he has reenergized a first-place team and its fans while drawing millions of eyeballs from all over the country to the sport.  With all of the BS tarnishing baseball over the last several years, the sport could use a guy like Harper, who thus far, has brought nothing but good PR, not to mention blessing the world with the great new catch phrase, “that’s a clown question bro.”

Hopefully the 2012 All-Star game will turn out to be an anecdote told in conversation several years from now:   “I watched those two share a field at an All-Star game in their rookie season, before they became two of the best to ever play the game.” 

You can’t go wrong having these two on the All-Star roster. 

The Unexpected Rise of R.A. Dickey

Nobody saw this coming.  Not even R.A. Dickey himself.  The Mets knuckleballer has had one hell of a ride.  The man has battled many demons in his life, from suffering sexual abuse to an injury expected to be career-ending to deep emotional depression.  At age 37, Dickey finally hit his stride with a 12-1 record and 2.40 ERA earning him his first-ever All-Star spot.

Dickey’s career seems to have played in reverse, starting out as a highlight touted first-round draft pick before doctors discovered he had an elbow injury, condemning him as damaged goods.  The more Dickey aged, the stronger he grew, learning, and now seemingly perfecting the art of the knuckleball pitch.  In June, Dickey made history throwing back-to-back one-hitters. 

Despite unquestionably earning a spot as an All-Star starter, the unique and rarely used pitch that got Dickey to this level may keep him out of the starting lineup in Kansas City.

Tony LaRussa, managing the NL team is concerned that his starting catcher, the young Buster Posey of the Giants might struggle to receive knucklers behind the plate.  Since the fans voted Posey a starter, LaRussa might feel forced to relegate Dickey to a backup spot.   Plus, the outcome of the MLB All Star game now actually means something to teams in World Series contention.

It would be an ironic shame if the talent that makes Dickey so spectacular forces him out of the starting lineup, but he is still an enigmatic figure with a story that fans love.  Being a first-time All-Star at age 37 is a great enough accomplishment to keep Dickey happy and the fans in his corner. 

Andrew Who?  Fans, Meet Andrew McCutchen

News of the injured Giancarlo Stanton proves to be the gift that keeps on giving.  First, Bryce Harper learned that he would replace Stanton on the NL All-Star roster.  Then, Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen got the call that he would take Stanton’s place in the Home Run Derby.

The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t get a lot of love from the media, understandably so considering the franchise has been one of the worst in baseball for many years.  It’s mean, I know, but it’s the truth.  On the bright side, the Pirates have a potential superstar on their hands as McCutchen, in his third year in the Majors, is having an outstanding season thus far. 

In 81 games, McCutchen is hitting .362 with 18 HR (including two in Sunday’s win over the Giants) and 60 RBI.   His .362 average leads all of baseball.  Not too shabby for a 25-year-old playing in Pittsburgh. 

In fact, McCutchen has the highest batting average by a Pirate at the All-Star break since World War II. 

Win or lose, McCutchen’s Derby appearance should create some buzz for the emerging star by giving the country an opportunity to get to know the Pirates’ young standout. 

Has hell officially frozen over? One might think so with the Dodgers, Nationals and Mets boasting the first, third and fourth best records in all of baseball, respectively.  Making some sense at least are the Rangers with the second-best record in the league, but with the Orioles leading the AL East, something is definitely fishy in the majors right now.

I know it’s hard for some of you east coasters to keep your cool right now, but seriously Yankees and Red Sox fans, we’re not even 10 games into the season so please wait at least another month before you completely lose it. 

Most season previews and Power Rankings I viewed at the conclusion of spring training predicted the Dodgers would be down in the dumps this year (yet again) but I disagreed and said as much in my own MLB season preview.  Luckily, the boys in blue are making me look good as Los Angeles not only has the best record in baseball at 8-1, but that number is good for the Dodgers best start since starting the 1981 season at 9-1…a season that resulted in a World Series championship for L.A. 

While the broke (see: Frank McCourt) and seemingly broke down Dodgers appeared to be devoid of any expectations from the national media or the public, that other team across the 405 freeway. with all its glitz and glam, was facing the exact opposite situation with the addition of bazillion-dollar off-season acquisitions Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. 

In a bizarre reversal of fortune, the Dodgers are getting all of the praise while the now Pujols-led Angels (3-5) are bringing up the rear in not only their own division but the Halos are also near the bottom of the entire American League as well.

There is no real battle for L.A. at the moment - the Angels don’t even play in Los Angeles County, much less L.A. city proper, so, there’s that - as this isn’t a fair fight based on the Dodgers early dominance.

Matt Kemp picked up right where he left off as the NL-MVP runner up leads the majors with five home runs, 15 RBI and a .457 batting average.  The center fielder isn’t the only hot hand at Chavez Ravine as right fielder Andre Ethier is close on Kemp’s heels with three home runs and 14 RBI, good for second-best in the league. 

Now, to the downside.  Yes, there is a downside.  It’s called the Padres and Pirates. 

That’s who the Dodgers have amassed an 8-1 record against.  The Padres and the Pirates.  Yikes.

It’s hard to take anyone seriously as a contender after the first nine of 162 games in a regular season but it’s also harder to give a team props when their “strong start” comes against two of the worst teams in baseball (thus far). 

As for the new-look Angels, the boo-birds are already out making a stink about signing Pujols to a 10-year, $240M contract.  Along with the three-time NL MVP came Wilson, the lefty who carried a hefty $77.5M price tag of his own. 

The 31-year-old Pujols is off to to a S-L-O-W start, hitting an underwhelming .250 with only three RBI and not a hint of a home run in his repertoire .  Fear not though Angels fans because the team is strong without Pujols, as proven by Anaheim’s 7-1 spanking of the Yankees in the Bronx on Saturday. 

Remember how Boston’s big bat David Ortiz was hammered by the media during his slow start over the last few seasons?  The Red Sox slugger routinely struggled for the first month of the season before warming up and regaining his typical good form in the batter’s box. 

Pujols said after the Angels’ Friday loss to the Yankees, “I’m a human.  Sometimes you want to press a little bit and try to do too much.”  Slumps are often times mental and have nothing to do with physical pain or problems.  Signing a contract of this magnitude surely put enormous pressure on Pujols’ shoulders and it’s showing early. 

This wouldn’t be the first time Pujols found himself in a pickle.  In the final year of his contract with the Cardinals - without an extension in sight - Pujols was hitting .143 through the first 30 at bats last season.  How did that wind up for St. Louis?  Exactly.

Much like the role reversal of the Mets and Yankees in New York for the time being, L.A. has the potential to be the baseball capital of the country this season. 

It’s too early to crown anyone king of anything, so lets regroup after 30 games to reexamine Kemp and Kershaw vs. Pujols and Wilson.  After all, what purpose would either team serve in SoCal without any Hollywood drama?  Sit back, and enjoy the show. 

                           

Updated 2:27pm EST: From the LA Times,

"A Venezuelan police Twitter feed says: “State law enforcement officials confirm ballplayer Ramos alive," according to the Washington Post.

Venezuelan officials said Thursday that they found the vehicle Ramos’ kidnappers used to abduct him. The Ramos family, which had not been contacted by the kidnappers, urged the public to stay calm.”

Between Joe Paterno’s firing and the NBA lockout, a major news story has slipped through the cracks.  Washington Nationals starting catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped in Valencia, Venezuela on Wednesday.

The 24-year-old Venezuela native was abducted from his mother’s home in the Santa Ines sector of Valencia by four gunmen, according to El Nacional newspaper, and while the police were notified, the family was still awaiting word from the kidnappers as of Wednesday night. 

Many Major League Baseball players are Venezuela natives and participate in Winter League play there.  Valencia is the hometown of both Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez and Yankees catcher Francisco Cerevelli

Ramos’ Winter League team, Tigres de Aragua confirmed the kidnapping on their twitter page.  Ramos had yet to play for the Venezuelan team. 

In 113 games for the Nationals this year, Ramos batted .267, with 15 home runs and 52 RBI. 

According to the Washington Post, “The Caracas newspaper, El Universal, reported in its online edition that the kidnappers had driven past the Ramos home twice before finally stopping and forcing Ramos into the vehicle. The catcher and his family had been just outside the house, enjoying the early evening, when the gunmen arrived.”

Officials have since found the SUV in which Ramos was taken, abandoned in a nearby town.  Police are reportedly processing evidence from the vehicle.   

While kidnappings of athletes and their family members is nothing new in Venezuela, the outcomes of such cases have varied. 

In 2009, the 11-year-old son of then-Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba, along with two of the boy’s uncles, were kidnapped in Venezuela and returned safely after Torrealba paid a ransom.

The ending wasn’t a happy one for Diamondbacks catcher Henry Blanco, playing for the Cubs in 2008 when his brother Carlos was kidnapped and murdered in Venezuela.  Carlos was shot to death, despite the fact that Henry negotiated with the kidnappers who were seeking ransom. 

According to David Brown of Yahoo Sports, ” Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has some thoughts on this, including this note: Venezuela has the highest kidnapping rate in the world.”

Regarding the fans at baseball games in Venezuela, Ramos told the Washington Examiner’s Brian McNally, “The fans in the stands, there are a lot of good ones. A lot of them understand that it’s a sport.  But during the game when they drink and they get drunk they forget everything — they boo you if you’re not hitting, or make errors. Everybody wants to kill you.”

According to the Washington Post article by Adam Kilgore and Juan Forero, “Many of the kidnappings that take place in the country are so-called “express” kidnappings, in which armed men drive a victim around and take money from him before releasing him. The Department of State crime and safety report stated that “groups that specialize in these types of crimes operate with impunity or fear of incarceration.”

As of 3:55am EST, I have yet to see any further updates on Ramos’ whereabouts or whether or not his family has heard from the kidnappers.  Hopefully this incident is indeed an “express” kidnapping and Ramos will be returned to his family soon and safely. 


For more on the Ramos kidnapping and the history of kidnapping in Venezuela, here’s the link to the Washington Post article cited in the above blog post:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/washington-nationals-catcher-wilson-ramos-kidnapped-in-venezuela/2011/11/09/gIQAS8tz6M_story.html