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Garner expects NL squad to step up

Garner expects NL squad to step up in '06

PITTSBURGH -- Phil Garner, a veteran of 18 big-league seasons and a three-time All-Star, is as old school as you'll find among the Major League names of yesteryear.

Even if the All-Star Game did not decide World Series home-field advantage, Garner would not view this game with an ounce of apathy. His roster might look a little different if this were a completely meaningless exhibition game, but his approach? Garner knows only one thing -- you play to win, whether it's Monopoly, golf or baseball.

But he admitedly has extra incentive, too. The National League has been absolutely dominated by the American League in the last decade, losing eight of nine and tying once, in 2002.

Garner would like to change that run. In his day, the National League won more All-Star Games. He wouldn't mind starting that trend again.

"What's imperative to us is the sense that this is more than just an exhibition game," Garner said. "We're tired of getting beat. We'd like to bring a victory back to us and get that home-field advantage. My task this year is to get that sense of pride back in the National League."

When Garner was a player in the 1970s and '80s, winning the All-Star Game was important to those in uniform. There was perhaps a sense of pride that today's player doesn't have when it comes to games that don't count in the standings.

"When I first came up, Pete Rose was involved in the All-Star Game," Garner recalled. "The first thing you noticed was a fierce determination to win the All-Star Game. I came in at the tail end of that. Guys played to win the All-Star Game.

"Pete Rose was going to run over somebody. Guys were going to take people out on the double play. It was played like it was the last game of the World Series."

Toward the end of his career, however, he noticed a shift in attitude.

"It kind of got to where it was just an exhibition game," Garner said. "Guys just came out and strutted their stuff and looked at it as an exhibition game."

Players may still view it as a meaningless game, but the stakes are obviously higher now that it determines home-field advantage during the most important week of the season.

Garner's Astros opened the '05 World Series in Chicago, where the White Sox beat them twice in what ended as a four-game sweep in Houston.

There's no telling if things would have been different had the series started at Minute Maid Park. But it couldn't have hurt.

Although the Astros, at this point, are not the leading favorite to represent the National League in the Fall Classic, Garner believes his club still has a shot. In that respect, home-field advantage is important to him.

"We learned painfully in the World Series that home field is an advantage in the World Series," Garner said. "Even though it's determined on this one game, we're going to do everything we can to win it."

Garner's lineup includes the players voted in by the fans, plus Dodgers right-hander Brad Penny. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano will lead off, followed by Carlos Beltran in center, Albert Pujols at first base, Jason Bay in right field, Edgar Renteria at shortstop, David Wright at third base, Chase Utley at second, Paul LoDuca at catcher and Penny pitching.

In terms of reserves and the rest of pitching staff, Garner is making no promises regarding playing time.

"First and foremost, everybody's an All-Star that's here and everybody deserves to have a chance to play," he said. "You'd like to get everybody in the ballgame and if it was just an exhibition game, that's what you'd do. But you'd obviously run into a problem, potentially like you did in Milwaukee a few years back [with the tie game], prompting this format we have now. We may have to hold a couple of pitchers back, we may have to hold a couple of position players back."

While Garner strategizes, he's also going to soak in the All-Star experience. Managing this game in Pittsburgh has special meaning for the skipper, who won the World Series with the Pirates in 1979. He still has many friends in the area, including the manager of that '79 Bucs team, Chuck Tanner.

Garner credits Tanner with teaching him everything he needed to know to become a good Major League manager, and as a salute to his friend and former skipper, Garner asked the league to grant special permission to allow Tanner to suit up on Tuesday as an honorary coach for the National League.

"This was Chuck's finest hour as manager and as far as my life is concerned, I probably don't have a baseball career to this extent without Chuck Tanner," Garner said. "In a small way, hopefully this honors Chuck and what he's meant to baseball, all over, but particularly here in Pittsburgh. It'll be a lot of fun to see Chuck in uniform."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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