CLEVELAND -- The baseball landscape has changed considerably during the past year, but the advent of interleague play apparently has done little to diminish the 68th All-Star Game.
The midseason classic is, after all, the ultimate interleague matchup, bringing together the best players from both leagues for one night every year. And, though there will be some notable no-shows, tonight's All-Star Game at Jacobs Field should not be short on subplots and story lines.
Left-hander Randy Johnson will celebrate his tremendous 1997 comeback when he delivers the first pitch at approximately 8: 30 p.m. He'll engage four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux in a dream pitching duel that couldn't happen anywhere else but the World Series.
The National League lineup includes two players -- Tony Gwynn and Larry Walker -- who have a chance to become the first in either league since 1941 to bat .400 or better for a full season.
The rosters for both teams have been juggled the past several days because of injuries that will sideline several superstars, including Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, Atlanta Braves outfielder Kenny Lofton and Cleveland Indians outfielder David Justice.
American League manager Joe Torre may be hesitant to send former Indian Albert Belle to the outfield after the harsh treatment he received from Cleveland fans the last time he was in town with the White Sox.
The starting pitchers are a study in contrasts.
Maddux is the consummate control pitcher, and he has rebounded from a substandard 1996 season to win 100 games in the first half and remind everyone why he is considered by many to be the best pitcher of his generation.
Johnson is the ultimate flamethrower and appears to be no worse for the back injury that cost him most of the 1996 season.
"He's a true power pitcher," Maddux said. "Guys are scared to death to face him. I don't know how to pitch that way. I'd like to have some of that for a few days, but I'm sure there are times when Randy would like to go out and throw 100 pitches over nine innings."
Johnson arrived at the break with a 12-2 record, a 2.20 ERA and a 19-strikeout performance in June that was the best evidence that he is all the way back -- and then some.
"I've been to five All-Star games and they've all been special. Each has had meaning to me," Johnson said yesterday. "But this is more special because I was out most of last year with my back. It shows all the effort I put in to get back. This is my reward."
It is also Maddux's reward, but for very different reasons. He probably wasn't the obvious choice to start for the National League -- the Montreal Expos' Pedro Martinez has significantly better numbers -- but NL manager Bobby Cox was rewarding him for more than a very good first half.
Maddux might be the single biggest reason that Cox has managed more All-Star games than any other active manager, so there probably is some payback involved. Maddux also is in the final year of his contract with the Braves, who want to re-sign him, so it wasn't a bad time to give him a timely pat on the back.
"The guy, if it's possible, is getting better," Cox said. "He's in double digits in wins, and his ERA is in the low 2s. Pedro Martinez pitched Saturday, so I didn't think I could use him for more than one inning. That's why I did not start him."
Despite some outstanding pitching numbers, the focus in the National League has been on the potentially historic offensive performances of Gwynn and Walker, who both have hovered around the .400 mark throughout the first half. Gwynn leads the league with 130 hits. Walker leads the league with a .398 average and 25 home runs.
"I don't know if anybody is going to hit .400," Cox said, "but both of those guys have a chance. Tony Gwynn, for my money, always has a chance, and I think Larry Walker probably is playing in a better ballpark for a hitter."
The American League has, like last year, gone home run crazy, with McGwire (31) and Griffey (30) on pace to challenge the Maris record. New York Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez also is in the hunt with 28 and was the upset winner in yesterday's All-Star Home Run Derby.
Cox configured his starting lineup so that his big right-handed hitters are in the pivotal run-production spots if leadoff man Craig Biggio (106 hits) and Gwynn can get something started. Left-handed-hitting Barry Bonds is in the third spot, but Mike Piazza and National League RBI leader Jeff Bagwell are positioned to pounce on Johnson if he struggles in the first
"This lineup was made pretty much because of Randy Johnson," Cox said. "If we're going to have a chance against him, I'd like to get Piazza and Bagwell a crack at him in the first inning."
No doubt, he would have preferred to lead off with Lofton. Bonds replaced him in the starting lineup, and former Oriole Steve Finley was chosen to replace him on the roster. Cox also had to replace catcher Todd Hundley, who pulled out with a wrist injury.
Torre also shuffled both his AL roster and his starting lineup during the past couple of days. He added Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill to the roster when Thomas decided not to attend and moved O'Neill into the starting lineup in place of Justice.
Torre took some criticism for the decision to replace Thomas with O'Neill, especially with hometown hero Jim Thome and Detroit Tigers star Tony Clark -- both first basemen -- having terrific seasons, so he explained himself again yesterday.
"When Frank Thomas couldn't make it, of course I favor my guy, but I was uncomfortable with five outfielders if Justice doesn't play," he said. "When we lost David yesterday, we are here in Cleveland, so we went with Thome, who's having a great year."
One of the reasons that Torre was concerned about the number of outfielders was the continuing controversy that surrounds Belle, who was showered with abuse and a variety of hard objects when he returned to Jacobs Field for the first time since signing with the White Sox.
Torre hasn't said how much he will play Belle in the outfield, but he hinted that two of the starting outfielders -- probably Griffey and Oriole Brady Anderson -- might have to play the whole game. Anderson appears willing to go the distance, even though he was forced to miss the last two games of the first half with a bruised calf.
Anderson is one of five Orioles in Cleveland for the game and three in the American League starting lineup. He will bat first and second baseman Roberto Alomar will bat last, with third baseman Cal Ripken in the seventh spot.
Pub Date: 7/08/97