David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CINCINNATI - Pete Rose, ever the prodigal son, returning to a stadium-shaking ovation from his hometown crowd, then taking his rightful place beside two fellow members of the Big Red Machine, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench.
The greatest living ballplayer, Willie Mays, wearing his faithful Giants cap. Sandy Koufax, alongside another immortal, Hank Aaron, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Here, in the middle of summer vacation, was baseball providing another history lesson, before it's All-Star showcase. Other than the World Series, this is the sport's grandest stage, and also one of the favorite times to look back, longingly, at a revered past.
But shortly after those festivities ended, it was like somebody tugged the needle across a Sinatra record. Four pitches in, Mike Trout, the 23-year-old Angels superboy, smacked a low line-drive that barely cleared the rightfield fence. The leadoff homer completed an All-Star cycle for Trout, who had a single, double and triple -- in order -- during his first three appearances.
With all due respect to the Hall of Famers, the next generation -- Cooperstown's Class of 2037 -- was ready for its close-up. They always are. With glowing neon cleats, rooster-comb buzzcuts, and ridiculous skills, this group of twenty-somethings showed up at Grand American Ball Park like they owned the place. Or no different from any other stadium, any other day.
Last year's Midsummer Classic was all about Derek Jeter, the retiring icon, the Yankees' captain -- and bowing out at age 40. Immediately, we all began to worry about the next face of baseball, and how he could ever possibly live up to the bar Jeter had set.
At this rate, we're going to have plenty of choices. With 20 of this year's 76 All-Stars age 25 or under, that's quite the bumper crop of candidates. And the expectation is that more will be on the way.
"The game's evolving into a younger sport," Bryce Harper said Tuesday afternoon. "I think everybody can see that. I think everybody knows that. It's a lot different from it used to be.
"I definitely respect the way people played back in the day. Always have. But the game is definitely changing. It's getting to be a younger, more international sport. And it's very exciting for the game of baseball."
Harper mentioned all the relievers throwing in the high-90s, the dominant starting pitchers, the up-and-coming power threats. Like Harper himself, obviously. On Monday night, in the Home Run Derby, it wasn't Albert Pujols who pushed local hero Todd Frazier to sudden death. But Joc Pederson, the 23-year-old Dodgers' rookie. Pederson said earlier in the day that he didn't hit home runs in high school. At the break, he's got 20 in the bigs.
"They're special talents," said AL manager Ned Yost. "I tried to remember back when I came up, guys played in the minor leagues a lot longer. Just seems like we're bringing the kids that are really especially talented to the big leagues earlier and continuing to develop them at that level."
"And that's fun. Young guys, they have energy, they have life, they have personality."
No offense to the four greatest living players honored before Tuesday'sgame, but a few reporters joked that maybe Trout should have qualified. Other than longevity, there's no arguing with his credentials. Reigning MVP, two runner-up finishes. Not bad for a kid that hasn't even been in the majors for five full seasons.
Trout, like Harper, is an exception, maybe a once-in-a-generation type of player. Or so we thought. Is it possible that more are on the way? Can we predict the ceilings of a Kris Bryant, Manny Machado or Giancarlo Stanton? They seem to just keep rising.
"I guess it's a young game now," Harper said. "We're just trying to build it and keep it going. Have some fun and enjoy it."
You won't hear Rob Manfred, in his first year as commissioner, complaining very much. His predecessor, Bud Selig, was happy to be heading for the exit at the same time as Jeter, the perfect modern ballplayer in his eyes. But for this group, the ones that grew up idolizing the Yankees' captain -- or in Manny Machado's case, A-Rod -- that definition may be changing.
As they transform the sport themselves.