All-Stars, young and old, awed by talent

July 14, 1999|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- They worry about the game when they get to the game. The All-Star player quickly learns that it is the totality of the entire experience that really matters.

So while Gary Sheffield, Kirby Puckett and Roberto Alomar might remember the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore because each hit a home run, Mike Piazza will always remember that night in Baltimore because of a conversation in the players's lounge.

"It was the coolest thing," recalls Piazza, who can usually make his All-Star reservations on the first day of spring training. "I was walking across the clubhouse and I saw Mark Grace, John Kruk, Darren Daulton and Ryne Sandberg sitting in the lounge. I had no intention of joining them. I was a rookie. I wasn't going to walk right in there. I would have felt out of place."

Never mind that the talented rookie was en route to a .318, 35 home run, 112 RBI season and was clearly one of the great hitting prospects baseball had seen in years. He was a rookie. He knew his place.

"Mark Grace yelled at me to come in and sit down," continues Piazza, who will be batting seventh in Bruce Bochy's National League lineup against Pedro Martinez. "I couldn't believe it. It was like being promoted. I felt accepted."

That was six All-Star Games ago. Mike Piazza has established himself as a serious candidate to be known as the greatest hitting catcher of all time. He is the perennial fan choice as the National League catcher. And there just might be a rookie on his team who would be equally flattered if Piazza were to allow him to join in what we might call the reindeer games.

Sean Casey, perhaps?

"I am so looking forward to meeting some of these guys and just being on the same team as them," gushes Cincinnati's Casey, the young first baseman who arrives here hitting .371. "You're talking about future Hall of Famers, the best players in the game. I'm really looking forward to having a conversation with them."

For most players, this is what the All-Star experience is all about. Be it baseball, basketball, football or hockey, the thing that turns on these great players is their own company. In some cases, it is renewing old acquaintance. In others it is satisfying curiosity. The great ones really want to know what makes the other great ones tick.

"I'm looking forward to meeting some of the young guys," says the ever-surprising Tony Gwynn.

Leave it to Tony Gwynn to turn the idea on its head.

Gwynn has struggled these past two months with a sore calf and will not be participating in this year's game. But even though he can't play, he is going to get himself yet another All-Star experience.

No National Leaguer more appreciates the uniqueness of Fenway, and it's just not fair that he can't get at least one at-bat here because he'll never have another [A Padres-Sox Series before they tear down Fenway? In your dreams]. He'll just have to satisfy himself simply by hanging around.

"That's what I like best," he claims. "I just love the atmosphere of the clubhouse in an All-Star Game. The laughing. The joking. Talking to guys. That's what makes this great."

Doing it here in what Boston sports broadcaster Clark Booth long ago labeled our "baseball basilica" makes the 1999 game even nicer.

"I remember first seeing that logo on the wall last year and finding out that the game would be in Boston," points out Baltimore's B.J. Surhoff, a 33-year-old first-time All-Star. "I thought, `That's a great place for the All-Star Game to be.' "

In theory, there's no better place, for no other ballpark offers the range of interesting possibilities Fenway can provide. With good luck the game will include a line-drive single off the wall that would have been a home run in 29 other parks; a lazy fly ball that just drops over the wall close to the foul pole that would not have been a home run anywhere else; a titanic blast high over the screen that invites speculation as to just how far it really did go; a shot down the right-field line that eludes the right fielder and rolls to the visiting bullpen for a triple, or even an inside-the-park home run; a ball ricocheting off the scoreboard ladder; a ball hit toward the bullpen area that allows the right fielder to make a bring-'em-back-alive grab, perhaps accompanied by a backward tumble into the pen itself; a ball rolling back and forth inside the left-field door; a ball to the triangle, and a couple of pop fouls that would have been outs in a ballpark with normal foul territory, and which are then followed by a base hit.

"Very simply," maintains Cal Ripken, "a place like Fenway Park is a very special place to play in, and when you take the best players in the National League and the American League and put them in this park, it is very special."

Cal Ripken is baseball's resident All-Star Game elder statesman. This is his 17th game, and his 16th consecutive game as a starter. He's had some nice All-Star Game moments. Yet to him, the best thing about being an All-Star is something none of us will ever see.

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