Setting a Star-Studded Stage 

St. Louis Welcomes the Baseball World

ST. LOUIS — Like Oscar night, baseball’s All-Star Game has become as much a celebration of image, personality, and style as it is a spotlight for the industry it sells. Such is certainly the case today, as baseball royalty — past and present — has congregated at Busch Stadium, the place dubbed “Baseball Heaven” by its tenants, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Having waited 43 years to host an All-Star Game , the Gateway City is dressed up as if it’s hosting not merely the Midsummer Classic, but the entire free world. And with President Barack Obama in town to throw out the first pitch, the guest list is rising to the standard.

A four-day FanFest in downtown St. Louis has set the mood, with interactive games, memorabilia booths, and autograph sessions (including one that drew all six living Cardinal Hall of Famers). Monday night’s Home Run Derby — won by Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder — provided its typical gawk-inducing display, an odd reminder that, despite the lingering damage of the sport’s “Steroid Era,” it’s still the long ball that chicks dig the most.

* Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants (and Germantown’s Houston High School) won’t be pitching for the National League, but is soaking up his first All-Star Game, along with family members who made the trip up I-55. “I’m going to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy it,” Cain said shortly after the team picture was taken in centerfield. Cain took a line drive off his right (throwing) forearm in his last start before the All-Star Break. Having struggled in 2007 and 2008 (15 wins and 30 losses), Cain is currently 10-2 with a 2.38 ERA. “Guys are playing good,”he said. “They’re getting on, scoring runs early, and the bullpen is coming in and shutting things down. I’m trying to throw strikes early, put the ball in play, and let my defense work.”

Cain’s teammate, Tim Lincecum (the 2008 NL Cy Young winner) will be starting the All-Star Game. I asked Cain if Lincecum’s influence has made a difference on his own pitching. “Oh, definitely. I’m always trying to steal things from him. He knows the strike zone, is always getting ahead of guys. So I tell myself if he can do it, I can.”

Did Cain watch the All-Star Game as a youngster? “Not really,” he admitted. “I watched the Big Three in Atlanta (Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine), but I didn’t watch a whole lot of it when I was little.”

* Count Tom Verducci (of Sports Illustrated and MLB Network) among those who like the All-Star Game deciding home-field advantage in the World Series (as it has since 2003). Verducci has been attending the Midsummer Classic for 20 years, and says he sees a difference in the players’ approach with the added incentive. “I got tired of seeing players leaving the game — leaving the ballpark — before it was over,” he said as the NL players took batting practice. “It’s not like there’s an intensity to win, or a manager would have the best players each bat four or five times. But there’s an edge now.”

Verducci says he will never give his Hall of Fame vote to players connected with steroids, and there is no qualifier. “I don’t get it when some people say a player earned his vote before taking steroids,” he said. “Is there a point when we tell a player it’s okay to start juicing?” Verducci said he sees a noticeable shrinking of major-league players over the last few seasons, specifically mentioning Boston shortstop Nick Green and Toronto shortstop Marco Scutaro. “A few years ago, players like that would be feeling pressure to gain size to keep up.” Among the biggest cheers Tuesday night will be those for Cardinal legend Stan Musial, who hit 475 home runs and tipped the scales at 175 pounds. Baseball, indeed, can be played quite well without muscle mass.

* Boston’s 42-year-old Tim Wakefield will be making his All-Star debut at Busch Stadium. Before the game, AL manager Joe Maddon was asked who would catch Wakefield’s knuckleball, and Maddon said the duty would be Cleveland’s Victor Martinez. When asked about the challenge of catching such a pitch, the former backstop said, “It was the embarrassment of having to go back and pick it up. You just have to wait on it; you can’t stab at it. It’s uncomfortable. If you accept the fact that you’re going to miss some, you’ll probably miss less.”

* Arizona pitcher Dan Haren and Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina reunited during the NL batting practice to discuss pitch selection. Haren and Molina were teammates on the 2004 Memphis Redbirds (and each played in that season’s World Series for St. Louis). It’s growing more apparent that the trade of Haren (a three-time All-Star) to Oakland for Mark Mulder is the Cardinals’ worst since they sent Steve Carlton to Philadelphia almost 40 years ago.

* Strangest pregame sight: Houston’s Miguel Tejada — in full uniform — selecting some memorabilia at a stand just outside the NL clubhouse. Don’t All-Stars have “people” for this kind of thing?

* Change is in the air. The ballpark where the National League last won an All-Star Game — Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia — is no longer standing. Among the stars on the field that day were Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, and Ozzie Smith, now all members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Remember, there’s a five-year wait — minimum — for election to the Hall after a player retires.) The landscape of baseball culture was entirely different in 1996, although many of the men who helped change it — Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Caminiti among them — were on that star-studded field in Philadelphia.

If the memories of baseball fans grow cloudy over a dozen seasons, the players themselves are a clean slate, or in the case of National League stars, perhaps an empty slate. Among the sixty-six 2009 All-Stars, exactly four — Tim Wakefield, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Trevor Hoffman — were active big-leaguers when the ’96 game was played. And while baseball is more international than ever (Ichiro Suzuki will make his eighth start for the American League), it’s somehow less mysterious (if the Steroid Era did anything to the culture of baseball, it removed some of its wonder). What remains consistent, of course, is the game itself. A well-turned double play in 2009 will stir the same awe as one did in 1996, or 1936. So play the game they will.

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