CLEVELAND -- There may not be a more eagerly anticipated matchup tonight than Seattle's Randy Johnson, the American League's starting pitcher, going against National League batting leader Larry Walker, who sat out an interleague game against the Mariners last month to avoid facing the imposing left-hander.
For sheer drama, it can't get much better than this.
Walker still remembers the Philadelphia Phillies' John Kruk fearing for his life while striking out against Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards. One pitch sailed over Kruk's head, causing him to gesture that his heart was pounding in one of the more comical moments in All-Star history. The third strike came on a breaking pitch that Kruk gladly waved at it to get back to the safety of the dugout.
Johnson's control is much better these days, but try telling that to Walker, who took some swings against him in an intrasquad game while they were teammates in Montreal.
"Back when we played together, he threw the ball 100 miles an hour and really didn't know where the ball was going," said Walker, who's batting .398 with 25 homers and 68 RBIs for the Colorado Rockies. "He threw the first pitch for a strike, I swung at the next pitch for strike two, and the 0-2 pitch nicked my chin going about a hundred. It knocked me down on the ground and I had to go change my shorts after the game. The 1-2 pitch, I swung before he even released the ball and sprinted back to the dugout."
Walker will bat sixth tonight and play right field.
"I never looked at it like he was dodging me," Johnson said, "and I really didn't realize he wasn't in the lineup because there were nine other people I had to face. I'm looking forward to it."
Asked whether his friendship with Walker will have any effect on their matchup, Johnson said, "I don't remember getting a Christmas card from him last year."
Johnson was quick with the one-liners yesterday, even though he was a bit groggy. Because the Mariners had a Sunday night game in Anaheim, he didn't arrive in Cleveland until about 7 a.m. and got two hours' sleep.
"I won't be operating any heavy machinery," he said.
Big thrill' for Neagle
It doesn't seem long ago that Denny Neagle was pitching for Arundel High School in Gambrills. Yesterday, the left-hander stood in the NL clubhouse as a two-time All-Star, sporting one of the best records in baseball and a smile that showed how happy he was to be there.
"If this was my 13th All-Star Game, I'd still be excited. I think you're crazy if you're not," said Neagle, whose 12-2 record and 3.20 ERA bely his status as the Atlanta Braves' fourth starter.
"This is what baseball is all about. When you get a chance to see other guys you haven't seen, it's a big thrill. I think guys are lying if they say different. I've heard Cal Ripken say that no matter how many he goes to, he's still excited."
It's the same feeling Neagle gets being part of Atlanta's rotation after five seasons in Pittsburgh, where he became the staff ace on a team that couldn't contend.
"I'm loving it," he said. "I love Atlanta. I have a home there already. The fans are great. We have a new stadium. Pretty much everything that's happened to me the past year the baseball gods were very good to me."
In Neagle's previous All-Star appearance two years ago, he pitched a scoreless seventh inning.
Lofton back in Cleveland
Kenny Lofton made his return to Cleveland yesterday, where he played for five seasons before being traded to Atlanta during spring training. He was voted in as one of the NL's starting outfielders, but can't play because of a hamstring injury.
He never considered skipping the game altogether. "I was voted in by the fans and they at least want to see me," he said.
"I was here for five years, so coming back is almost like coming back home. Not too much has changed, other than the old stadium is in the water."
Frank being frank
Former Orioles executive and manager Frank Robinson, who is the honorary captain of the National League squad, said yesterday that he would consider managing again if the right situation came along.
"I said I really didn't want to manage again," Robinson said, "but after getting out of baseball after 42 years, friends have told me I should consider managing again. I'll keep an open mind. It would have to be the right job and the right time. At my age , it couldn't be a rebuilding situation. It would have to be a situation where, if everything fell into place, we could win."
Robinson and honorary American League captain Larry Doby took part in yesterday's news conference before the All-Star workout. Both said they were pleased with the progress that Major League Baseball has made since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 50 years ago.
"The most important thing is not to stop," Doby said. "I would like to see [the celebration of Jackie Robinson] to go on and on."
Taking the scenic route
The Milwaukee Brewers' Jeff Cirillo almost took the long way to Cleveland.