Suddenly bitterness forgotten


ARLINGTON, Texas -- They were there and then they were gone, throwing but 52 pitches between them, striking out half of the dozen batters they faced, reducing baseball's best hitters to flailing fodder.

Randy Johnson and Hideo Nomo came as advertised last night in the first two innings of the All-Star Game. Imposing. Impressive. Impossible.

For a few minutes on a 96-degree evening, they cured an ailing game. Suddenly, the game itself was the thing again. The empty seats at ballparks across North America, the lingering fan bitterness, the low TV ratings, the memories of Bud and Donald's Not-So-Excellent Adventure -- they were yesterday's news. For a few minutes.

This hour belonged to the game in one of its most magical incarnations -- two strikeout pitchers locked in what amounted to a stare-off. Johnson of the Mariners and Nomo of the Dodgers (by way of Osaka, Japan) marched together through lineups stacked with mega-bats, trading third strikes beneath a full moon, egging each other on without saying a word.

The shame was that they couldn't keep going.

Not that it would ever happen, but this was the night for baseball to suspend the rules of order for the All-Star Game, let the other pitchers rot in the bullpen and give the fans what they wanted: Johnson and Nomo, as long as possible, until one of them broke.

Now that would have been something to see.

Johnson walked the game's first batter, Lenny Dykstra, then didn't allow another to reach base. Pitching from on high, as always, and mixing 96 mph fastballs with bending sliders that resembled gravity experiments, he allowed only one ball to leave the infield, a benign line drive to left field from Tony Gwynn.

Barry Bonds swung viciously at a high fastball and missed for strike three.

Fred McGriff missed a slider by a mile for strike three.

Ron Gant flailed at a fastball and waved at a slider.

Bonds, McGriff and Gant: a combined 47 homers and 152 RBI; just not good enough.

"He had his good stuff tonight," catcher Mike Piazza said. "He could have gone nine."

An hour before the game, Kirby Puckett stood in the AL clubhouse offering advice to leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton on how to hit Nomo.

"Don't even look at the dude when he starts that funky windup stuff," Puckett said. "Just stand there whistling until you see the ball coming."

An hour later, Lofton hit Nomo's second pitch into the outfield seats, but foul. Then he was fooled by a trap-door forkball for strike three.

Sorry, Puck.

Edgar Martinez, batting .363, looked ridiculous swinging at a strike-three forkball that wound up in the dirt. Albert Belle also let a forkball fool him.

Nomo blinked ever so briefly in that he allowed a single to Carlos Baerga (who was then thrown out stealing), and let Cal Ripken hit a hard line drive to Gwynn in right field, but otherwise was untouchable.

Final strikeout totals: Johnson 3, Nomo 3.

How much fun would it have been to let them go on, and on, and on? The All-Star Game was actually, genuinely tense for once when they were on the mound. A full house at the Rangers' new stadium ooohed and ahhhed as the pitchers traded strikeouts, reacting as though a fire works show were erupting in the sky above.

But then it was over, and much too soon, after only two innings. Kevin Appier replaced Johnson and John Smiley replaced Nomo, and, with all due respect to both replacements, the tension went out of the air. It was just a game again, not a passing moment of magic.

Home runs started flying, the NL hitting three to carve out a 3-2 win. But no one will remember who won in a month, of course. The essence of the All-Star Game isn't wins and losses; it's great plays, sudden moments of brilliance, the best against the best.

It's Nomo and Johnson, pitchers from two worlds and two leagues, trading strikeouts in the Texas twilight.

There was a lot of talk from a lot of baseball people here about using this game as a springboard to start bringing back the lost fans. They don't get it, of course. The fans aren't coming back, at least not with their old fervor, until a collective bargaining agreement is signed and baseball can promise us a future beyond tomorrow.

But as much as the All-Star Game can't solve what ails baseball, it can serve as a reminder, as it did in the first two innings last night, that the game itself isn't the problem; that the game is indisputably a marvel; that any game that gives you Randy Johnson and Hideo Nomo, staring each other down, shouldn't be as sick as it is.

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