AL's best a blend of power, experience
Junior Circuit's All-Stars try for decade of dominance
They built the wall. Now the same All-Stars largely responsible for turning the Midsummer Classic into an American League pastime have been entrusted with perpetuating the domination of the National League in Chapter 77.The AL starting lineup chosen by fans' vote features a collection of league mainstays with a personal hand in eight consecutive All-Star Game victories. Seven of the eight starters are Midsummer veterans with an aggregate of 38 All-Star appearances since 1997 -- when the AL began its reign in Jacobs Field. The only exception is erstwhile National Leaguer Mark Loretta, whose last-gasp triumph at second base was one of two dramatic final-week rallies. Perennial All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez also headed off Jason Varitek at the wire. Furthermore, nearly one-third of the roster -- 10 of the 31 players announced Sunday -- represent Boston and Chicago, the two teams which have swept each of the last two World Series from the NL entries. New York second baseman Robinson Cano and Varitek had led at their respective positions since the first tabulation of public voting, on May 31. Loretta, the first Boston second baseman elected to start an All-Star Game since fans resumed voting in 1970, said of his upset victory, "I'm very overwhelmed and humbled by it and excited and I think it speaks volumes to the Red Sox nation. They get out there and support their team, so I'm very happy about it." While Loretta wound up with a relatively easy decision over Cano, beating him by 88,700 votes, Pudge Rodriguez scored a narrow victory (by 17,000 votes) over Varitek to earn his record 11th All-Star start; he'd shared the old mark with Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza. "Thanks to the fans who selected me again," Rodriguez said. "It's great. I'm going to go there and enjoy it like it's my first time." While the rest of the starting lineup chosen by fans ran true to trend and had no other surprises, the pitching staff and bench voted by players and completed by AL manager Ozzie Guillen reflects an exciting blend of the familiar and the fresh. First-time All-Stars include scintillating Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who leads the Majors with a .392 average, exciting young southpaw Scott Kazmir of the Devil Rays, and a couple of firemen who a year ago were in the Minors -- Boston's Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Jenks of the White Sox. "It's something I've always dreamt about," Mauer said. "Hopefully I have a couple more times to go. I'm just really excited right now I get to go and experience it." The starting infield mirrors the two sides of a static rivalry that has dominated the East division as long as the AL has dominated the NL. The left side is New York, with third baseman Alex Rodriguez and shortstop Derek Jeter, and the right side leans toward Boston, with Loretta and first baseman David Ortiz. Left fielder Manny Ramirez makes it a trio of Red Sox starters -- for now. Boston officials, including manager Terry Francona, had already lobbied for the exclusion of Ramirez, who has been playing on a sore right knee. "[If] somebody's going to take some heat, I hope it's me. I've already asked Manny to not play," Francona reiterated Sunday afternoon. "I didn't tell him he couldn't play. I just don't think it's a good thing for him to do." Los Angeles' Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners complete the outfield, and the starting lineup. "This feeling never gets old," said Guerrero, who will be making his fourth All-Star Game start, including one for the NL. "It is good when the fans recognize you." Suzuki had trailed the Yankees' Johnny Damon for the final spot in the outfield halfway through the voting period but wound with a healthy margin of 525,000 votes over him. It is also noteworthy that Ichiro was the top choice of his peers among outfielders, collecting 454 players votes to 343 for Ramirez -- the fans' overall top vote-getter with a grand total of 3,101,161. The players' ballot furnished eight members of the 12-man pitching staff and nine of the 11 reserves. "That's the ultimate compliment," Texas shortstop Michael Young, one of those tabbed, said of being chosen by his peers. "When guys you play with think you belong in the game, that means a lot. There are so many talented shortstops in the league, it's humbling that the players selected me to go." Guillen, meanwhile, used his managerial privileges -- exercised in consultation with MLB officials -- on a couple of key fronts. He invoked it as a perk to some of the pitchers who carried him to the 2005 World Series title and again have him in the hunt -- adding left-hander Mark Buehrle and Jenks. That raised the White Sox's contingent to a league-high six -- ironically, none of them in the starting lineup, and the team's biggest since 1960, when seven South Siders were chosen. Players' selections include Jose Contreras, the right-hander closing in on an undefeated year, Paul Konerko, Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye.
Thome topped the players' first-base ballot with 296 votes (Ortiz was next with 236), and was gratified to be chosen following a vain season during which injuries had limited him to 59 games with the Phillies."You don't know what's going to happen; are you going to come back from an injury like that? So it does mean a lot," Thome said. "It really does. I've always said, whenever you get the opportunity to go to them, you should cherish every moment because you just don't know how many there's going to be." Ranking second with five choices, including hospitalized outfielder Alexis Rios, are the Toronto Blue Jays, whose healthy All-Stars are starting pitcher Roy Halladay, closer B.J. Ryan, third baseman Troy Glaus and outfielder Vernon Wells. "That's a lot, but all five are very deserving," said Toronto manager John Gibbons, who will be one of Guillen's base coaches in Pittsburgh. "We've got some good players, guys are having great years, and we've got a good club. It's good for the town." The Red Sox and Yankees, with four selections each, are the only other teams with more than two All-Stars. Guillen had to commit the rest of his berths to satisfy the requirement that each team have All-Star representation. His other four picks all are their teams' sole All-Stars: Left-handers Mark Redman of Kansas City and Barry Zito of the A's, Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada and Cleveland outfielder Grady Sizemore. Sizemore, the MVP of the 2003 Futures Game, was an easy choice for Guillen, who last fall dubbed him the "best all-around player in the AL Central." A comparable no-brainer was Redman, who won five games during the Royals' 13-win June.
Guillen's crew also had to replace two injured players already ruled out of the game. Cano and Rios, both chosen by the players' vote as first-time All-Star, were replaced by Seattle second baseman Jose Lopez and Rangers outfielder Gary Matthews Jr.This 77th AL All-Star team is an ideal blend of power, speed and bat control. Seven of the league's top 10 homer hitters, led by Thome, are accounted for. Suzuki and Sizemore are both among the league's stolen base leaders. As for the pitching staff, it is a perfect storm of complimenting talents which could have Guillen at an advantage should the Classic evolve into a late-game strategic battle with NL manager Phil Garner. The AL staff is loaded with seven left-handed arms -- Kenny Rogers, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Ryan, Buehrle, Kazmir, Redman -- and a battalion of closers who blow smoke but rarely saves -- Mariano Rivera, Papelbon, Jenks, Ryan. "For me, it's a real humbling experience to get voted to this and to be a part of history," said Papelbon, after picking up his 25th save in a 4-3 win at Florida. "It's very surreal and very humbling." The AL will be out to complete an undefeated decade -- including the 7-7, 11-inning tie in the 2002 Milwaukee game -- on July 11 in Pittsburgh's PNC Park. Additionally, the AL is overdue to win in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh will see a record fifth All-Star Game in the city, and the NL has won the first four (7-1, in 1944; 5-4, in 1959; 7-2, in 1974 and 8-7, in 1994).
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.