SAN DIEGO -- Rangers ace Cole Hamels grew up here, close enough to late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn that he constantly saw him cruise by in that indelible, pearl white, 1970 Porsche 911 that he loved so much. Hamels later played for Rancho Bernardo High School, rivals with nearby Poway, where Tony Gwynn Jr. played. And every time the two programs faced off, there was the elder Gwynn, finding a spot somewhere beyond the outfield fence so that he wouldn't be bothered.
"It was kind of cool to know that Tony Gwynn was watching your game, even though he's watching his son," Hamels said. "We always convinced ourselves that Tony Gwynn was there to watch us, too."
The 2016 All-Star Game, presented by MasterCard and staged at Petco Park, is set for tonight, with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. CT on FOX. It'll be Hamels' fourth Midsummer Classic, in the city he grew up in and alongside a teammate, Ian Desmond, who has in many ways re-invented himself.
Desmond was the man hardly anybody wanted this winter, who turned down a $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Nationals, remained on the market until February was almost over, then settled for a one-year, $8 million contract in which he consented to abandon shortstop and learn the outfield.
He's played in every game, batting .322/.375/.524 with 15 home runs and has, miraculously, become one of the game's best defensive center fielders, with a 4.8 Ultimate Zone Rating that ranks fourth at a demanding position.
Hamels, a longtime National League East rival, called Desmond's work ethic "second to none."
Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre identified Desmond as "our MVP, and it's not even close. I don't know where we would be without him. He has been a treasure."
"I didn't really come in with expectations," Desmond said. "The only expectation was that I was going to work hard, and let that take me wherever it took me. It's still a long way to go. That's the way I feel. Simple as that. I feel like I have a long way to go. It's going to be fun."
The Rangers entered the All-Star break in first place, with a 54-36 record that gave them a 5 1/2-game cushion in the AL West. And had it not been for a couple of bad July starts -- which totaled 10 runs on 15 hits and nine walks over 8 1/3 innings -- Hamels might be starting the game that could potentially grant Texas home-field advantage in the World Series.
Royals manager Ned Yost instead chose White Sox ace Chris Sale as the American League's starting pitcher, leaving Hamels to come out of the bullpen in his hometown.
"Everything's earned," Hamels said. "The two games that I just put up definitely put me out of the running. I think Ned is all about putting the best person out there who's earned it. Chris has definitely done everything and more this year."
Hamels -- acquired from the Phillies in a six-player, prospect-laden deal on July 31, 2015 -- is 9-2 with a 3.21 ERA thus far, having absorbed 112 innings and struck out 109 batters. The 32-year-old left-hander finished June with a 2.60 ERA that was the third-lowest in the AL.
Tonight will mark Hamels' first Midsummer Classic in four years, and it will probably be his most memorable.
"It means a lot," Hamels said of being an All-Star in this city. "It's kind of a dream come true. You don't know if you're going to have these types of opportunities, and when it does come up, everything has to go right. You have to stay healthy, you have to be on a great team. You have to have certain things go the way they need to happen in the first half, because being a pitcher, you earn every bit of it to get to the game. Nothing's given to you."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.