ATLANTA - The stars will come out tonight at Turner Field - just not all of them.
The 75th All-Star Game has been stripped of so much of its starpower that you could almost make a complete All-Star team from the players who have withdrawn because of injuries.
The only position not represented on the theoretical All-Star disabled list is second base, and that could change if former Oriole Roberto Alomar is too sore to start tonight. There is an All-Star injured at every other spot on the diamond, many of them among the most popular players in professional sports.
Future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken and home run king Mark McGwire aren't here. Superstars Ken Griffey, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez showed up, but will not play. Multiple Cy Young Award winners Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux are sidelined. The list of big-name absentees also includes Mets catcher Mike Piazza and RBI machine Manny Ramirez.
The injury situation is so critical that All-Star managers Joe Torre and Bobby Cox still were trying to contact possible substitutes late yesterday afternoon.
This is Major League Baseball's worst nightmare, though no one wants to admit it.
"We seem to have had a few more injuries this year," said MLB chief operating officer Paul Beeston yesterday. "If you look at the lineups that will be out there tonight [for last night's home run derby] and tomorrow night, I think you'll all agree this is going to be quite a special two days."
Perhaps baseball's midseason classic would be special no matter what, but the string of injuries that has gutted both All-Star lineups clearly has taken some of the excitement out of the festivities.
"It's really unfortunate because this game is totally for the fans," said Rodriguez, who suffered a concussion in a basepath collision Friday. "It's a handicap anytime guys like Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken don't play. It's a shame."
In their stead, the managers had to scramble to fill their rosters and choose several new starters for each lineup. Yankees star Derek Jeter replaced Rodriguez in the American League starting lineup. Indians third baseman Travis Fryman replaced Ripken.
Late yesterday afternoon, Cox still was trying to decide between budding superstar Vladimir Guerrero and veteran Gary Sheffield to take Barry Bonds' place in the NL lineup, and searching for a catcher to fill the spot that opened on the roster when Piazza was beaned by Roger Clemens on Saturday.`This lineup has changed many times," said Cox, who eventually picked Guerrero to start in left and tracked down the Cubs' Joe Girardi to be the third-string catcher. "I had a lineup really set ... etched in stone here about 10 days ago. But then our guys started to drop."
Leave it to the perennially upbeat Torre to try to put the best possible face on a situation that has to have the network television executives gnashing their teeth.
"It was very unfortunate how many players we have lost to injury over the last couple of weeks," he said. "I guess the only upside to that is there are so many more deserving players that the roster allows you to have. Now you're able to honor more.
"I know on our ballclub, we have 15 first-timers. For me, as a manager, it's a big thrill to see the faces of these guys when they come into that clubhouse and see all their teammates for that one day. It's a great experience for me, and I know it will be for them."
If nothing else, this year's All-Star Game still features a premier pitching matchup, even if it isn't the one fans probably expected to see as recently as a couple orf weeks ago.
Dominating left-hander Randy Johnson will take the mound for the National League against Toronto Blue Jays ace David Wells - who might not be Pedro Martinez, but is the winningest pitcher in baseball with an impressive 15-2 record.
The dream showdown between Johnson and Martinez was derailed when Martinez was sidelined with a ribcage problem, though it is possible Torre would have picked Wells, anyway.
"Well, Pedro still may be the best pitcher," Torre said, "but David Wells is having the best year. He deserves to be there. I know people want to see Pedro, but David has his cult following, too.
"We all know what Pedro Martinez can do, but David Wells is a character that most people can relate to."
What a subplot: Wells was chosen to start the game by his old Yankees manager, just 18 months after the Yankees traded him to the Blue Jays for five-time Cy Young Award winner Clemens.
How much more vindication could a guy want, but Wells downplayed any hard feelings against the Yankees.
"No, when things happen like that, you just have to treat it as business and don't hold any regrets over it," Wells said, almost wistfully. "You know, to me, New York was the place where I wanted to stay. That's where I wanted to end my career. It was just sometimes how things happen. When you can trade for a Roger Clemens, I think you'd be crazy not to, because he's an outstanding pitcher."