The Philadelphia Phillies hosted the 1996 MLB All-Star Game at Veteran’s Stadium in South Philly for a second and final time.
There were many differences between the 1976 and 1996 MLB All-Star Games, which were held two decades apart at the same venue of Veteran’s Stadium in South Philadelphia.
For the host Phillies, the biggest difference was that the ’76 game had come while the team was emerging as a contender with a number of talented players throughout the roster. The team would win the NL East that season for the first of three consecutive division crowns.
By contrast, the ’96 Phillies team was a losing squad in every way you could define such a team. They would finish 67-95 in last place in the NL East, and aside from the oasis provided by the 1993 ‘Macho Row’ NL champs, the franchise was in the midst of 14 out of 15 losing seasons.
My own life situation had changed drastically as well. Back in ’76, I had enjoyed many of the Bicentennial events in Philly as a 14-year old, and had watched that year’s All-Star Game on TV.
By ’96 and the 25th anniversary of Veteran’s Stadium, I was a grown man of 34, and was able to attend the MLB All-Star Game FanFest held at the new Pennsylvania Convention Center. It was a wonderful event, with numerous displays and activities for all baseball fans.
As for the game itself, there were a number of notable events prior to and during the game. First, as the American League team picture was being taken, a mishap resulted in Baltimore Orioles ‘Iron Man’ shortstop Cal Ripken Jr breaking his nose.
Typical of Ripken, who was still in the midst of his record consecutive games played streak that he had set the previous September and that would ultimately reach 2,632 games, he was patched up and played on.
During the pregame introductions, the 62,670 Phillies fans on hand in true Philly fashion playfully and lustily booed Toronto Blue Jays’ slugger Joe Carter, who had beaten the Phils with his famous walkoff home run in the 1993 World Series.
The honorary “first balls” were thrown out by the living Phillies Hall of Famers, led by pitcher Jim Bunning, who was elected that year. Joining Bunning were Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, and Richie Ashburn.
This was also the 15th and final MLB All-Star Game for “The Wizard of Oz”, Saint Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith. The crowd gave him a rousing ovation when he entered the game as a substitute in the middle innings, chanting “Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie” in respect for the future Hall of Famer, the best defender to ever play the position.
Only one Phillies player was selected for the National League team that season, closer Ricky Bottalico. ‘Ricky Bo’ had 20 Saves at the break, with a 49/19 K:BB ratio, and had allowed just 29 hits over 42.1 innings to that point in the season.
The NL starting lineup featured what may one day turn out to be as many as 6-7 Hall of Famers, one of whom would not be the leadoff hitter, center fielder Lance Johnson of the New York Mets.
Following Johnson in the order for the senior circuit were shortstop Barry Larkin of Cincinnati, left fielder Barry Bonds of San Francisco, 1st baseman Fred McGriff of Atlanta, catcher Mike Piazza of the Mets, right fielder Dante Bichette of the Colorado Rockies, Atlanta 3rd baseman Chipper Jones, and 2nd baseman Craig Biggio of Houston.
The starting pitcher for NL manager Bobby Cox of the Braves was his own John Smoltz. Among the NL reserves was future 2009 Phillies pitcher Pedro Martinez, who was just starting out on his own Hall of Fame career.
For AL skipper Mike Hargrove of the Cleveland Indians, two of his own were in the starting lineup, leadoff man and center fielder Kenny Lofton, and cleanup hitter and left fielder Albert Belle. He also had four future Hall of Famers to write in.
The AL starters also included Wade Boggs of the Yankees hitting 2nd, with 2nd baseman Roberto Alomar of the Orioles batting 3rd, and Mo Vaughn of Boston hitting 5th at 1st base. The man known as ‘Pudge’, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, was batting 6th. Ripken would bat 7th, while his Orioles teammate right fielder Brady Anderson hit in the 8-spot.
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On the mound, the assignment to open for the American League went to Tribe starting pitcher Charles Nagy, who was in the midst of five consecutive seasons winning 15 or more games. Coming out of the AL bullpen would be a pair of future Phillies relievers in Jose Mesa and Roberto Hernandez.
Much as with the 1976 game at The Vet, the NL jumped on top early and never looked back. Johnson led off the bottom of the 1st with a double, moved to 3rd on a ground out, and scored the game’s first run on an RBI ground out by Bonds.
Piazza, an area native from Norristown, PA who had roamed the aisles and ramps at The Vet on numerous occasions as a kid, led off the bottom of the 2nd inning with a mammoth solo homer to left field.
Four batters later, Henry Rodriguez of the Montreal Expos, pinch-hitting for Smoltz, would score Jones with an RBI single and the NL had a 3-0 lead.
In the bottom of the 3rd with Chuck Finley of the Angels on to pitch, Piazza laced an RBI double to right-center, scoring Larkin with a run that opened up a 4-0 lead for the National League.
Bottalico came on to pitch the top of the 5th inning, giving the Phillies fans something to cheer in the midst of a bleak summer. The Fightins’ closer struck out Rodriguez swinging to start off his appearance, then retired Ripken on a fly ball to left.
With two outs, Anderson grounded to new 3rd baseman Ken Caminiti, whose error put a runner on base. But Bottalico then got pinch-hitter Jay Buhner to line out to center field, ending his lone inning with no damage.
Pedro came on for the top of the 6th and allowed two hits, as well as a stolen base from Lofton, but got through his inning unscathed as well.
Caminiti made up for his error when he led off the bottom of the 6th with a solo homer. Bichette doubled one batter later, and would score on a Biggio ground out that upped the NL lead to what would prove to be the final 6-0 margin.
This would turn out to be the only MLB All-Star Game in history in which no batters were walked. In the end, the hometown kid Piazza would be named the Most Valuable Player off his 2-3 performance.
This would also mark the first MLB All-Star Game in which that award was presented by Bud Selig, who was then the Chairman of baseball’s Executive Committee. He would not be named the formal Commissioner until 1998.
That was the fourth and final time to date that Philadelphia has played host to the MLB All-Star Game. The city has hosted twice at Shibe Park, and twice at Veteran’s Stadium. Now, when will Citizens Bank Park get its chance to finally host the midsummer classic?