No longer simply a showcase of the best talent in the big leagues, the All-Star Game has taken on increased importance in recent years, because the winning league stakes its claim to home-field advantage in the World Series. For National League manager Phil Garner of the Astros and American League manager Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox, who met in the World Series a year ago, this is no small matter.
"We do want to win. We found out painfully last year that home field is an advantage in the World Series," said Garner, whose Astros team was swept by Guillen's White Sox in the 2005 Fall Classic. "It's determined on this one game and we're going to do everything we can to win."
"We have to win this game," countered Guillen. "This is real important because somebody in our [AL] clubhouse is going to be in the World Series. Hopefully what the people did for us last year, we can do for them this year."
The National League, in search of its first All-Star Game win since 1996 in Philadelphia, will turn to several emerging stars to reverse the losing ways of its predecessors.
Washington Nationals speed-and-power threat Alfonso Soriano will lead off for the Senior Circuit, followed by New York Mets center fielder and five-tool talent Carlos Beltran. St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols, arguably the game's most feared hitter, will bat third. Hometown hero Jason Bay of the Pirates will bat cleanup and play right field. Atlanta Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria, filling in for injured starter Jose Reyes of the Mets, will hit fifth. Up-and-coming star third baseman David Wright of the Mets will bat sixth, followed by Phillies slugging second baseman Chase Utley and Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca.
Dodgers right-hander Brad Penny will start for the National League in his All-Star debut. Penny is 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA in 19 appearances with Los Angeles this season. He's split his two decisions against AL opponents this season.
"I'm looking forward to ... trying to compete and win one for the National League this time," said Penny. "It's really an honor."
Guillen will counter with an American League lineup that is a virtual who's who of past All-Star and postseason heroes. Former batting champion Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners will bat leadoff and play right field, followed by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Red Sox first baseman David Ortiz. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will bat cleanup, followed by Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero in left field, Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells and Red Sox second baseman Mark Loretta.
Tigers left-hander Kenny Rogers will make his third All-Star appearance and first All-Star start of his 18-year career. The 41-year-old southpaw is 11-3 with a 3.85 ERA in 18 starts with Detroit this year.
"It's a great honor for me, especially at this stage of my career, to be able to start an All Star Game," said Rogers. "It's something I never envisioned, but I'm really grateful."
Guillen defended his decision to go with Rogers as the starting pitcher rather than Toronto's Roy Halladay or one of the other high-profile pitchers on his American League staff.
"Kenny, he deserves to be there," said Guillen. "He's on a first-place team and he's one of the guys that can give me more than one inning, and that's the reason why I did it. But mostly I think he's the best pitcher right now in the American League."
In addition to playing for home-field advantage in the World Series, the National League will be looking to salvage a little league pride. The AL often made the Senior Circuit look like junior partners in Interleague Play this year, winning 154 of 252 games.
"We keep hearing about the AL dominance," said Bay. "It is incentive to try to turn this thing around in a National League stadium."
"We're tired of getting beat," added Garner. "To me, the task this year is to get that sense of pride back in the National League."
The NL does have history on its side. The Senior Circuit has won each of the four previous All-Star Games played in Pittsburgh, including an 8-7 extra-inning win for the NL at Three Rivers Stadium in 1994.
"Maybe that's the silver lining we need," said Bay.