Fenway setting enhances All-Star script

July 14, 1999|By John Eisenberg

BOSTON -- It was the last All-Star Game of the century and also probably the last at Fenway Park, and it more than lived up to the occasion.

If it wasn't the best All-Star night in years, it was close.

"It was like `Field of Dreams' or something out there," the Indians' Jim Thome said.

A stirring pre-game ceremony involving dozens of Hall of Famers left the sellout crowd limp and many current All-Stars crying like Little Leaguers.

"That was emotional stuff out there, just awesome," National League outfielder Larry Walker said.

The game itself was almost a letdown after that, but not when American League starter Pedro Martinez, pitching in a frenzy in front of his hometown fans, became the first All-Star pitcher in history to start the game with four straight strikeouts.

"What an act to follow," said National League starter Curt Schilling.

But even it couldn't match the pre-game ceremony for sheer emotion.

It was all the result of a promotion, sponsored by a credit card company, giving fans a chance to select an All-Century team from a list of 100 legendary players. Several dozen were introduced last night, walking in slowly from center field to a standing ovation.

Call it a first cousin to the last game at Memorial Stadium eight years ago, which the Orioles turned into a hazy, tearful lovefest.

Brooks and Frank Robinson were back on the field again, as were Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and many others. The legends lined up on the base paths from first to third, opposite the 1999 All-Star teams, which were introduced and lined up along the first and third base lines. The present facing the past.

"Just so many names you have only read about or seen on old videos on TV," said Martinez, who was named MVP after the AL's 4-1 win. "So many players I never thought I would get a chance to meet. I felt like a lucky guy standing on that field."

Then, in a moment no one will forget, Red Sox legend Ted Williams appeared through a door in the outfield wall and was slowly driven to the infield on a golf cart, drawing the loudest ovation of all. When he reached the mound, the past and present stars broke from their places and a staged script and gathered around him, paying tribute to a man often regarded as the game's greatest hitter.

"I'm kind of an emotional guy," Walker said, "and when I got up there and saw that there were tears in Ted's eyes, I had to look away. That's the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, surrounded by other great hitters. What an honor to be standing on that field."

The players mingled on the field for several minutes, exchanging handshakes, embraces and even autographs.

"To be honest, the game could wait at that point," former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro said. "That was a chance of a lifetime. I didn't realize we were going to gather around Ted like that. I was proud to be on the field."

Boston's Nomar Garciaparra said, "I think we all appreciated the game at that point, that there's a history and tradition we're all part of."

Williams, debilitated by a stroke, then stood up with the help of several players and threw the ceremonial first pitch -- on the fly to Carlton Fisk, who raised his hands in triumph as the crowd roared again.

There was so much history in the air that you almost felt like a time traveler.

"All the All-Star Games are unique," the Orioles' Cal Ripken said. "But with the significance of Fenway Park, this one has to rank right up there."

Actually, the possible, impending demise of Fenway lent a melancholy touch to the night. The Sox and baseball "commissioner" Bud Selig didn't help with their blatant campaigning for a new, faux Fenway over the past two days, topped off last night with the public address announcer advising fans to buy a program "commemorating the last All-Star Game at Fenway Park," as if the wrecking ball were coming through today.

The reality is there are still no concrete plans for the Sox to move into a Fenway II in the next five years, forsaking tradition for a better bottom line. The usual coalition of politicians, romantics and grumps are fighting it.

It'll happen in the end, sure, but there's still a long way to go, and labeling last night's game as Fenway's final Midsummer Classic was a declaration of victory before the war was over or even underway.

The Sox need a new park, no doubt. That's just a reality. And as Camden Yards proved, you can replace the old with the new and keep your history.

But it was still unseemly to watch everyone give Fenway, of all places, a premature burial at an All-Star Game, of all moments.

Anyway, players on both sides obviously were deeply moved by the chance to play the All-Star Game at such an historic site. Walker tore out a clump of the outfield grass and pledged to take it home and keep it. Mark McGwire and Palmeiro said they'd do the same.

"So many glories of baseball in one place," Martinez said.

Hall of Famers. Fenway. Ted Williams. A strikeout record. A flow of tears.

What moments. What a night.

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