PHILADELPHIA -- If you believe the hype, the 67th All-Star Game will be a meteor shower. No one in the bleachers at Veterans Stadium will be safe. And no one on the mound will have a chance.
Mark McGwire will put another crack in the lighted Liberty Bell above center field. Brady Anderson will show why he's the next Roger Maris. Albert Belle will brain somebody in the stands with a baseball and no one will raise an eyebrow.
This is, after all, the year of the home run, and both teams are packed with players who are poised to puncture the stat-o-sphere. The American League in particular.
Of course, it might not turn out that way. The myth of the live ball died in 1987, when baseball was in the midst of a similar home run frenzy and the All-Star Game in Oakland remained scoreless for 12 innings. This year's pitching deficit may be the stuff of which home run records are made, but there still is enough good pitching left in the major leagues to fill two All-Star teams.
"I just hope I don't embarrass myself," said Cleveland right-hander Charles Nagy, who was named by Indians manager Mike Hargrove yesterday to start for the American League.
Nagy will face a power-packed starting lineup that features Barry Bonds, Fred McGriff, Mike Piazza and Dante Bichette and averages 21 home runs at the heart of the batting order, but the NL squad will be without injured Tony Gwynn and Matt Williams, and somehow was assembled without home run leader Sammy Sosa.
Atlanta Braves 14-game winner John Smoltz has it tougher, even though he may not have to face the full force of an American League lineup that is so deep that Anderson -- with 30 homers at the break -- will bat in the No. 8 spot. Orioles teammate Roberto Alomar is doubtful with a sprained finger and Triple Crown threat Frank Thomas is hobbled by a sprained left foot.
Not that the absence of either will provide much of a break for the National League pitching staff. Hargrove said that American League batting leader Chuck Knoblauch would play opposite shortstop Cal Ripken if Alomar is unable to start and has the choice of McGwire (28 homers) or Mo Vaughn (26) to start at first base if Thomas doesn't.
"It's just a chance to pitch against a tremendous lineup," Smoltz said. "You could stand out there and watch batting practice and come up with a sore arm."
There are enough of those already. Injuries hurt the AL staff long before the All-Star team was even under consideration. New York Yankees ace David Cone went out early with an aneurysm && and 1995 Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson went down with a back injury. Hargrove chose between Nagy (11-2) and 13-game winner Andy Pettitte for the starting assignment, and went with his own pitcher because Pettitte had pitched more recently. The rest of the AL staff is made up largely of short relievers.
The NL staff features seven starting pitchers and an impressive staff ERA of 2.75 -- which is hardly indicative of a league-wide pitching shortage -- but National League manager Bobby Cox acknowledged that baseball's pitching crisis is not limited to the American League.
"I think there are just some pitchers that aren't really ready for the major-league level," said Cox, who brought along almost half the Atlanta pitching staff just to be safe. "That's why you're having a lot of runs."
The juiced-ball theory also remains in play, but Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said there is more evidence of a talent shift toward the offensive half of the game.
"I've gotten balls that felt awful hard, but if that's the case, you can throw them back," Glavine said. "Regardless of the baseball, if you throw it where you want to throw it, you're going to get guys out."
Still, everything points in the direction of a high-scoring game. The first pitch will be at about 8: 30, so there will be no twilight visibility problems for the hitters. The AL staff features two starting pitchers who are averaging nearly five earned runs per nine innings while the more proficient NL staff may be without perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux, who split his right toe with a foul ball Sunday.
The All-Star Game serves as a showcase for the differing styles of play in each league. The game is in a National League ballpark this year, so it will be played without the designated hitter.
Cox figures to play it fast and loose early, forcing the action in an attempt to get the NL on the scoreboard quickly, before Hargrove can begin marching his parade of closers to the mound.
"Overall, I think the National League is a faster-paced type of game," said Colorado Rockies outfielder Ellis Burks, who has played in both leagues. "Also, with the pitchers having to hit, there is more strategy in play in the National League. Talent-wise, it would be very tough to pick one league over the other."
It won't be long before the issue becomes moot. Major League Baseball is expected to introduce limited interleague play next season, which should lead to a more homogenized style of play. That means that this year's midseason classic may be the last one between completely separate leagues.
"From the National League fan's standpoint, they want to see the American League stars play, and probably we should feel the same way," said San Diego's Gwynn. "But this game is a special occasion that a lot of guys don't have the opportunity to enjoy. My feeling is, interleague play may take away from this event."
Where: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
When: 8: 29 tonight TV: Channels 11, 4
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Managers: American League, Mike Hargrove, Indians; National League, Bobby Cox, Braves.
Series: NL leads 39-26-1.
AL starters, batting order
Kenny Lofton, Indians CF
Wade Boggs, Yankees 3B
Roberto Alomar, Orioles 2B
Frank Thomas, Wh. Sox 1B
Albert Belle, Indians LF
Ivan Rodriguez, Rangers C
Cal Ripken, Orioles SS
Brady Anderson, Orioles RF
Charles Nagy, Indians P
NL starters, batting order
Lance Johnson, Mets CF
Barry Larkin, Reds SS
Barry Bonds, Giants LF
Fred McGriff, Braves 1B
Mike Piazza, Dodgers C
Dante Bichette, Rockies RF
Chipper Jones, Braves 3B
Craig Biggio, Astros 2B
John Smoltz, Braves P
Pub Date: 7/09/96