SEATTLE - It was not so long ago that this otherwise picturesque waterside metropolis was considered one of the outlands of Major League Baseball.
The generally hapless Seattle Mariners played in an ugly domed stadium in front of an uninterested fan following and helped create the currently popular notion that there are just too many big-league teams.
That's why tonight's 72nd All-Star Game is such a wonderful symbol of the area's surprising baseball revival.
Who could have imagined 10 years ago - or even 10 months ago - that Seattle would be the center of the baseball universe in 2001?
The Mariners are the game's most sparkling success story, rebounding from the loss of three superstars in four years to build the best record in the majors and head into the All-Star break with an all-but-insurmountable 19-game lead in the American League West.
The city wasn't bad to begin with, but the addition of Safeco Field - widely considered one of the most scenic of the new generation of downtown baseball parks - has turned Seattle into a must-see destination for the baseball tourist as well as a comfortable home for the Mariners' rejuvenated fan base.
"You couldn't write a script any better," said hometown hero John Olerud, who was one of eight Mariners to be elected or named to the AL squad.
And that's just one of the many storylines that make this year's midseason classic a classic in the making. Here are a few others:
Near-certain Hall of Famer Roger Clemens likely will face New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza for the first time since the infamous bat-throwing controversy at last year's World Series, though both insisted yesterday the supposed animosity between them is overblown.
Former Orioles pitcher Curt Schilling was named to start for the National League against Clemens, whom Schilling credits with helping him turn his career around in the early 1990s.
Orioles Iron Man Cal Ripken and San Diego Padres hit machine Tony Gwynn will take the final All-Star bows of their playing careers. Both have announced they will retire after this season.
Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki will make his American All-Star debut, leading off and playing center field for the AL squad.
Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez, both on pace to challenge Mark McGwire's single-season home run mark, will set their personal competition aside in favor of the common goal of ending the AL's four-game All-Star winning streak.
Though Seattle may have temporarily wrested away center-of-the-universe status from New York, the Clemens-Piazza rivalry was one of the dominant themes of yesterday's All-Star media day.
Lest anyone forget, Clemens beaned Piazza during an interleague game last summer, then inflamed passions again when he picked up a bat fragment during Game 2 of the World Series and angrily flung it in the general direction of the popular Mets catcher.
The fallout from the incident was disturbing enough to prompt New York Yankees manager Joe Torre to steer Clemens around a scheduled interleague start at Shea Stadium last month, but Clemens and Piazza tried to minimize the importance of their possible matchup in the early innings tonight.
"I've faced Mike Piazza a number of times," Clemens said. "There are a lot of guys up there [on the NL lineup card] that I've got to worry about."
Piazza seemed certain it was no accident when Clemens hit him in the helmet with a fastball last year, but appeared determined yesterday to keep the incident from becoming a dominant theme at his ninth All-Star Game.
"I don't even think about it," Piazza said. "It's never in my mind. I'm just coming here to have a good time. I don't have any issues at all. That's how I'm going to approach it. Whether I strike out or hit a home run or whatever happens in between, I'm just going to look at it as another at-bat."
Still, someone had to ask. What if Clemens hits him with a pitch?
"It'll probably hurt," Piazza replied.
For Schilling, it was the truth that hurt in an off-season conversation with Clemens nearly 10 years ago. During a workout at the Astrodome in 1992, he got a lecture from "The Rocket" about his work habits and his approach to the game. Schilling still considers it a turning point in his development as a star-quality pitcher.
"I think it's incredibly ironic that I'm starting the All-Star Game against Roger," Schilling said. "It wasn't really a conversation. It was the kind of conversation that your father has with you when you're going down the wrong path. ... I drove home that day thinking a lot differently about myself and the game. I've told him a couple of times how much that meant to me."
"We had a conversation a long time ago about which way our careers were going," he said. "It's pretty exciting [to be matched up against Schilling tonight]. I'm proud of him."
The game will showcase the All-Star farewells of Ripken and Gwynn as well as the arrival of Suzuki as the game's newest international superstar.