SEATTLE — Then just halfway through his rookie season, Julio Rodríguez introduced himself to the broader baseball world at last year’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles. And, generally speaking, the baseball world was smitten. He left 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 turf, it seemed like you couldn’t go a block in downtown Seattle without seeing his face. Suffice it to say, the people who have seen him play are fans.
“I feel like a lot of people say a lot of nice things,” Rodríguez said this week when asked about the best compliment he has ever gotten on his game. Julio is no more humble than he needs to be, but here he’s just being honest. Still, some praise means a little more than most.
While Rodríguez was playing in his first All-Star Game in 2022, the Angels’ Mike Trout was appearing in his 10th. Rodríguez took the opportunity to ask Trout about his experience spending a decade quietly dominating the sport.
“And he basically, kind of encouraged me,” Rodríguez said. “He was like, ‘Whatever you need, you already got. So just go out there and believe in yourself.’”
The sentiment might not have been especially sophisticated, but the source made it special.
“When I was growing up, like, he was that guy. He’s still that guy!” Rodríguez said. “So it was really cool to kind of hear that from him.”
‘You got good s***, man’
All-Stars, by definition, have had ample opportunity for people to offer them adulation. The event itself is a days-long showcase and celebration of their individual greatness. More than any (perhaps more significant) team accomplishment, being named to an All-Star roster is an unadulterated acknowledgement: Hey, you’re great at what you do.
But to the All-Stars themselves, the compliments that mean the most tend to be ones they get not in the form of awards but from one another. And sometimes those come in the most unexpected moments.
“We were in the playoffs, and I just pitched Game 2 against the Tigers in Oakland,” said Sonny Gray, who is an All-Star for the Minnesota Twins this year at 33 years old but debuted with the Oakland A’s in 2013, when they went to the Division Series.
The then-rookie pitched eight shutout innings in an A’s 1-0 victory, but at the next game in Detroit, a brawl broke out.
“I was young. I didn’t really know much what was going on, and everyone’s out there kind of, like, yelling at each other, and I’m kind of staying on the back,” Gray said. Then the team’s interpreter, Ariel Prieto, found him amid the melee.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, Sonny, Miggy wants to see you! Miggy wants to see you!’”
Miggy, of course, is Miguel Cabrera. At the time, he was playing in what would be his second consecutive MVP season, with 10 years in the big leagues already under his belt.
“I get over to Cabrera, and he’s like, ‘Hey, hey!’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘You got good s***, man. You got good s***,’”Gray recalled. “‘Thank you, Mr. Cabrera. Appreciate that.’”
Cabrera, a 21-year veteran and future Hall of Famer playing a farewell tour this season, has evidently not been shy about hyping up young players — much to their delight. Austin Riley is now a two-time All-Star after the entire Braves infield played in Seattle this week 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 wound down in 2019, Cabrera came across Riley and asked whether he’d be on the Opening Day roster.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know. We’ll see,’” Riley said. “He’s like, ‘If you were on our team, I would make sure you’d be on it.’”
As it turned out, Riley didn’t break camp with the Braves, but he was called up later that season. Either way, “I thought that was pretty, pretty sweet 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 validate a point of pride — or assuage an area of concern.
Marcus Semien, one of a record-setting five Texas Rangers elected 2023 All-Star Game starters, is baseball’s modern Iron Man. Now 32 years old, his commitment to taking the field every single game, a growing rarity in sports, is well known. For Semien, then, his favorite compliments are those that credit “my work ethic and how I bring the same intensity every single day,” he said.
Even more meaningful is when that old-school mentality gets recognized by the old-school managers who modeled that kind of dedication, such as Bob Melvin, when Semien played in 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. Still, on a team with perpetual contender aspirations and a need to maximize every ounce of ability, he worries about pulling 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 compete my ass off, especially coming from teammates.”
It took Nick Castellanos nearly a decade to make his first All-Star team. After he earned down-ballot 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 free-agent contract with the Phillies, but he was back in the All-Star Game as a 31-year-old this season.
It means a lot to him that multiple coaches and managers have told him, “Your game is aging well,” as he said.
“I like that, you know, because to stay consistent for a long time in baseball, you have to go about your business the right way,” Castellanos said. “if you don’t, you either better be really talented, or you’re gonna get weeded out.”
Ultimately, for athletes, the highest form of flattery is when your rivals are just really, really frustrated about having to face you.
“It’s always catchers,” former NL MVP Freddie Freeman said of those whose words resonate with him. As a first baseman, he gets opportunities to chat with opposing players, and about a decade into his career, he started noticing a particularly satisfying line of small talk with catchers who reach 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 could receive — when you get told they don’t know how to game-plan against you,” Freeman said. “Most of the time, they say, ‘We just try and throw down the middle and hope you get yourself out.’”
Even while smiling his way through his seventh All-Star Game media availability, Freeman stopped short of wielding his success too ostentatiously. He opted not to specify the first — or, really, any one — time that has happened.
After all, he doesn’t want the pitchers to find out that he knows they’re afraid of him.
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