Stars brace for Mile High score Wells, Maddux to try to take the (thin) air out of year of homer

July 07, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

DENVER -- If baseball fans are obsessed with the home run, then the 69th All-Star Game has come to the right place at the right time.

Nowhere does a baseball travel as far as it does in the Mile High City, where Coors Field is known as much for its tape-measure home runs as it is for its architectural similarity to Camden Yards.

And at no time has the home run been a more prominent part of the baseball landscape than in 1998, with three players on pace to break Roger Maris' record for home runs in a season.

Will the midseason classic live up to the Rocky Mountain hype?

Will Mark McGwire hit one to Wyoming?

Or will the cream of baseball's diluted pitching ranks spoil the fun and make tonight's much-anticipated homerfest disappear into thin air?

Four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux will start for the National League and former Orioles left-hander David Wells will head the list of American League pitchers who will attempt to level a playing field that clearly is tilted in favor of the two star-studded offensive lineups.

"Judging by the two pitchers that are starting, I don't think it's going to be a high-scoring game," said Seattle's Ken Griffey, who is on pace to hit 64 homers this year, "but it might be a quick game."

Don't bet on that.

The quality of the pitching is not in question -- the combined ERA of the National League staff is 2.30 -- but even the steady Maddux has had his shareof rocky outings at Coors Field. "Obviously, the slider doesn't slide as much and the curveball doesn't curve as much, but you can still pitch here," he said. "The biggest thing is, the outfielders have to play back, so you're always giving up the extra base. Instead of first and second, it's always first and third."

That is, if the hitter doesn't get under the ball and sail it into the bleachers. The outfield is huge, but it has to be. The ball carries so well in Denver that the expansive perimeter still doesn't figure to present a major challenge for the best power hitters in the game.

"I think most people expect to see some home runs, some hitting, some high-powered offense," said San Diego's Tony Gwynn, "but there might not be. This game is really based on pitching. If the pitchers are throwing the ball good, it could be 2-1 or 3-2. If they get the ball up, you don't have to hit it good to get it out."

McGwire cleared the left-field bleachers completely with several batting practice shots yesterday, much to the delight of the crowd that showed up to watch the daylong schedule of workouts and skills contests.

Indians first baseman Jim Thome hit his first shot of the home run derby halfway into the third deck above right field, the first of many upper-deck shots last night. McGwire hit one 510 feet, falling a few feet short of becoming the first player ever to drive a ball into "The Rockpile" -- the upper-deck bleacher section in straightaway center field. The ball travels so well that the big swingers have to guard against swinging too hard and getting themselves out.

"You can," McGwire said. "I mean, if you go to Boston, you can't try to swing and hit it over the Green Monster. You have to realize that Coors Field has a gigantic outfield, where balls will fall in. Normal singles in most ballparks will be doubles, if you have speed."

Still, the conditions may be right for a legendary All-Star home run to compare with the ball that Reggie Jackson hit off the transformer atop Detroit's Tiger Stadium in 1971. McGwire has made a habit of testing the boundaries of every stadium he visits, and he will draw what appears to be a favorable pitching matchup.

Wells is having an outstanding year. He arrived at the break with an 11-2 record and pitched the first regular-season perfect game in New York Yankees history in May. But the veteran left-hander also is on pace to give up nearly 40 home runs this year. He has surrendered 19 in his first 16 starts, far and away the most by any pitcher on either All-Star staff.

AL manager Mike Hargrove could have opened with Boston ace Pedro Martinez, who had the same record as Wells and better overall statistics, but he defended the decision to reward Wells for his perfect game and correct for the absence of a Yankees position player in the All-Star lineup.

"I felt that of all the guys, that he probably could handle the pressure as well as anybody," Hargrove said. "He gives us a chance to win it."

No such explanation was necessary from NL manager Jim Leyland. Maddux clearly was the most deserving NL pitcher, with a 12-2 record, a 1.54 ERA and an excellent chance to become the first pitcher in history to win a fifth Cy Young Award.

Leyland could have gone with any of his three starting outfielders in center field, but chose 1997 National League MVP Larry Walker based on his familiarity with the ballpark. "I felt like, he's played in this ballpark a little bit more," Leyland said.

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