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First-timers ready for All-Star festivities

First-timers ready for All-Star festivities

SAN FRANCISCO -- The first-timers should be easy to spot. During the Home Run Derby on Monday night, most of them will probably be sitting on the field at AT&T Park with their video cameras out, capturing their inaugural All-Star experience.

The weekly voting updates allowed a handful of All-Star rookies to gauge their chances of being included in the 78th Midsummer Classic on Tuesday in San Francisco. For others, heading to the Bay Area for the break wasn't something that was necessarily in their plans. Then again, things can change in a hurry.

"I actually planned on sitting at the sports book at the Red Rock Casino in Vegas watching the Home Run Derby," said outfielder Aaron Rowand, one of Philadelphia's two first-time All-Stars. "I'll get to sit there on the field now. I'm looking forward to it. I never expected to make an All-Star team, never got my hopes up for it. To be able to be a part of it is a blessing."

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Among the 18 All-Star freshman, the National League roster has a pair in its starting lineup.

Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder, who currently leads his league with 27 home runs, finished roughly 800,000 votes ahead of St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols -- a six-time All-Star and winner of the 2005 NL Most Valuable Player Award. Fielder is looking forward to testing his skill in the Home Run Derby, an event his father, Cecil, took part in three times with a young Prince watching nearby.

"That will be fun," said Fielder, joining shortstop J.J. Hardy as Milwaukee's first-time All-Stars. "It just seemed like everybody was having fun, especially the guys on the side waving their towels when somebody from the same team is hitting."

The fans also made Dodgers catcher Russell Martin a starter in his first All-Star Game, providing him with around a 300,000-vote edge over the Mets' Paul Lo Duca in balloting. Martin's teammates want to make sure the catcher realizes that making the team isn't always so simple.

"Not many catchers go, and he gets to start it," Dodgers All-Star pitcher Brad Penny said. "He gets in his first time. ... He probably feels like it's easy to make an All-Star team, but he deserves it, and I think he'll be a great catcher for a long time."

The local Giants fans aren't likely to give the Los Angeles catcher a warm welcome, but he's still excited about making the trek from Dodgers Stadium to AT&T Park for the All-Star Game.

"I'll be like a kid in a candy store," Martin said. "I don't think I'll realize how cool it will be until I get there. I thank the fans who voted for me. I play hard, and they gave me recognition by voting for me. It's something I dreamed about as a kid."

For the time being, the American League has just one All-Star rookie in the starting lineup in Detroit second baseman Placido Polanco. That number could rise if either Detroit's Justin Verlander, Oakland's Dan Haren or Boston's Josh Beckett -- all first-timers -- are picked by manager Jim Leyland to be the AL's starting pitcher.

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Polanco, who helped the Tigers reach the World Series last year, knows all too well that making the cut for one of the league's elite squads isn't an easy task. The 31-year-old second baseman is in his 10th big-league season and has only garnered his first All-Star selection.

"When you play for nine years, and it's the first time you're in the All-Star Game, it's unbelievable," Polanco said. "Wherever you look, you're going to be looking at some Hall of Famers -- [Derek] Jeter and A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] and Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez] and Manny [Ramirez]. I'm going to get to see Manny being Manny."

The younger All-Stars are looking forward to having the opportunity to be around all of the league's top players at once. It's a chance for the up-and-comers to pick the brains of their All-Star elders. Arizona second baseman Orlando Hudson, who will be joined in San Francisco by Diamondbacks pitcher Jose Valverde to experience the game for the first time, believes that's one of the better aspects of the whole week for the players.

"It's definitely an honor, man, to make the All-Star Game and play against all these greats, all these future Hall of Famers and be in the same locker room with them," Hudson said. "It's not just about being on the field with them, but getting a chance to chat with them, be on the same sideline and hopefully get to win a ballgame with them."

Dodgers 37-year-old closer Takashi Saito, who has a 1.26 ERA and 23 saves this year, and Boston setup man Hideki Okajima, who made the AL's roster by winning the All-Star Final Vote, are both heading to their first All-Star Game.

They'll join Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki to form a trio of Japanese All-Stars. Saito believes making the All-Star team in the Major Leagues is a more difficult task than in his home country, where multiple exhibition games honor Japan's top players.

"There are more teams here, and only one game, where there are three All-Star Games in Japan," Saito explained. "The chances of getting picked in Japan are greater. So it's a really unbelievable feeling."

Other first-timers include Minnesota's Justin Morneau, who took home the AL MVP last season and will compete in the Home Run Derby on Monday; Phillies starter Cole Hamels; Angels pitcher John Lackey; Kansas City starter Gil Meche; Seattle closer J.J. Putz; and San Diego starter Chris Young, who won the NL's Final Vote.

"It's kind of surreal," Meche said. "It'll probably hit me when I get off the plane in San Francisco about what it really means to me and my family. It's a big deal."

Putz shared that sentiment.

"I don't think it's going to sink in until I actually get there and get around the festivities," Putz said. "That's what guys who have been there have told me. They also said it's going to be something I'll never forget. I am looking forward to it."

Jordan Bastian 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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