They worry about the game when they get to the game. The All-Star player quickly learns that it is the totality of the experience that really matters.
So while Gary Sheffield, Kirby Puckett, and Roberto Alomar might remember the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore because each hit a home run, Mike Piazza will always remember that night in Baltimore because of a conversation in the players’s lounge.
``It was the coolest thing,’’ recalls Piazza, who can usually make his All-Star reservations on the first day of spring training. ``I was walking across the clubhouse, and I saw Mark Grace, John Kruk, Darren Daulton, and Ryne Sandberg sitting in the lounge. I had no intention of joining them. I was a rookie. I wasn’t going to walk right in there. I would have felt out of place.’’
Never mind that the talented rookie was en route to a .318, 35, 112 season and was clearly one of the great hitting prospects baseball had seen in years. He was a rookie. He knew his place.
``Mark Grace yelled at me to come in and sit down,’’ continues Piazza, who will be batting seventh in Bruce Bochy’s National League lineup against Pedro Martinez tonight. ``I couldn’t believe it. It was like being promoted. I felt accepted.’’
That was six All-Star Games ago. Mike Piazza has established hmself as a serious candidate to be known as the greatest hitting catcher of all time. He is the perennial fan choice as the National League catcher. And there just might be a rookie on his team who would be equally flattered if Piazza were to allow him to join in what we might call the reindeer games.
Sean Casey, perhaps?
``I am so looking forward to meeting some of these guys and just being on the same team as them,’’ gushes Cincinnati’s Casey, the young first baseman who arrives here hitting .371. ``You’re talking about future Hall of Famers, the best players in the game. I’m really looking forward to having a conversation with them.’’
For most players, this is what the All-Star experience is all about. Be it baseball, basketball, football, or hockey, the thing that turns on these great players is their own company. In some cases, it is renewing old acquaintance. In others it is satisfying curiosity. The great ones really want to know what makes the other great ones tick.
``I’m looking forward to meeting some of the young guys,’’ says the ever-surprising Tony Gwynn.
Leave it to Tony Gwynn to turn the idea on its head.
``I want to see how they go about their business,’’ he explains.
Gwynn has struggled these past two months with a sore calf and will not be participating in tonight’s game. But even though he can’t play, he is going to get himself yet another All-Star experience.
``I’ve come full cycle,’’ he says. ``In my first All-Star Game [San Francisco, 1984], I was the youngest player on the team. In my last two, I’ve been the oldest [that was before 40-year old Harold Baines was named to replace injured Jose Canseco]. In that first one, I was the one asking all the questions. `Where do you go? How do you dress? What are you supposed to say?’ Now it’s the other way around.’’
No National Leaguer more appreciates the uniqueness of Fenway, and it’s just not fair that he can’t get at least one at-bat here because he’ll never have another. (A Padres-Sox Series before they tear down Fenway? In your dreams.) He’ll have to satisfy himself simply by hanging around.
``That’s what I like best,’’ he claims. ``I just love the atmosphere of the clubhouse in an All-Star Game. The laughing. The joking. Talking to guys. That’s what makes this great.’’
Doing it here in what Clark Booth long ago labled our ``baseball basilica’’ makes the 1999 game even nicer.
``I remember first seeing that logo on the wall last year and finding out that the game would be in Boston,’’ points out Baltimore’s B.J. Surhoff, a 33-year-old first-time All-Star. ``I thought, `That’s a great place for the All-Star Game to be.’ ‘’
In theory, there’s no better place, for no other ballpark offers the range of interesting possibilities Fenway can provide. With good luck tonight’s game will include a line-drive single off the wall that would have been a home run in 29 other parks; a lazy fly ball that just drops over the wall close to the foul pole that would not have been a home run anywhere else; a titanic blast high over the screen that invites speculation as to just how far it really did go; a shot down the right-field line that eludes the right fielder and rolls to the visiting bullpen for a triple, or even an inside-the-park home run; a ball ricocheting off the scoreboard ladder; a ball hit toward the bullpen area that allows the right fielder to make a bring-’em-back-alive grab, perhaps accompanied by a backward tumble into the pen itself; a ball rolling back and forth inside the left-field door; a ball to the triangle, and a couple of pop fouls out of play that would have been outs in a ballpark with normal foul territory and which are then followed by a base hit.
``Very simply,’’ maintains Cal Ripken Jr., ``a place like Fenway Park is a very special place to play in, and when you take the best players in the National League and the American League and put them in this park, it is very special.’’
Cal Ripken Jr. is baseball’s resident All-Star Game elder statesman. This is his 17th game, his 16th consecutive as a starter. He’s had some nice All-Star Game moments. Yet to him, the best thing about being an All-Star is something none of us will ever see.
``I’ve grown in this experience,’’ he explains. ``In my first game [Comiskey Park, 1983], I didn’t know how to act. I couldn’t speak to veteran players. I spoke when spoken to. I played the rookie role. Now what I love best is the clubhouse experience. I like batting practice. I like the game. But the best part is just being in the clubouse and talking to the other guys. There is great excitement for me in just being assembled as a team for that brief period of time.’’
In this context, they’re all just big, impressionable kids. ``So I’m on the elevator,’’ beams Gwynn, ``and who gets on? Randy Johnson!’’
C’mon, Tony. You sure it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity?