The sight of Bonds taking his hacks before an adoring overflow crowd at AT&T Park should make tonight's All-Star Game feel less like an exhibition and more like real hardball. And a true reward awaits the winner, since the victorious league will gain home-field advantage in the World Series.
Recently, the AL's dominance has robbed the All-Star Game of rivalry. The AL has captured 15 of the last 18 games and the last nine in a row, not counting the 2002 tie at Milwaukee.
Jackie Autry, the AL's honorary president, couldn't resist jabbing the NL by referring to it as the "lesser league." NL manager Tony La Russa of St. Louis didn't argue, recalling his first All-Star appearance as an AL coach in 1984 -- which happened to be the last Midsummer Classic in San Francisco. Including that year, the NL won 24 of 27 games, with one tie.
"I felt that the National League was competing and the American League was exhibiting," La Russa said. "It kind of swung around where the American League was winning. Now they're still winning."
To combat that, La Russa unveiled a starting lineup that features Bonds, with his NL-high 1.101 OPS, batting second. Longtime NL zealots might smile at this, since Willie Mays, Bonds' godfather and perhaps the finest All-Star performer ever, often batted leadoff against the AL. La Russa theorized that placing Bonds near the top of the order would "get attention right away."
Said Bonds, "I told him I'd bat eighth, I don't care."
Coincidentally, La Russa cited his actual No. 8 hitter, Philadelphia's Chase Utley (.325, 15 home runs, 68 RBIs), as a source of optimism.
"I know we have a good team," La Russa said. "You look at our eighth-place hitter and that tells you all you want to know."
The AL counters with a lineup that features seven .300 hitters, compared with the NL's three, and a 4-5-6 heart of the order -- Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels and Magglio Ordonez of the Tigers -- that averages 77 RBIs apiece.
"I'll be in awe, that's for sure, of the team playing behind me," AL starter Dan Haren of Oakland said.
Regarding the task of facing potential Hall of Famers such as Rodriguez, Guerrero, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, Detroit's Ivan Rodriguez and the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter, NL starter Jake Peavy of San Diego said, "I look forward to the challenge. I like being out there competing. Like Dan said, you're going to be in awe of the situation, but come 5:05 tomorrow, I have to concentrate on throwing the ball down and away and getting these guys out."
| ALL-STAR LINEUPS
Ichiro Suzuki, cf
Derek Jeter, ss
David Ortiz, 1b
Alex Rodriguez, 3b
Vladimir Guerrero, rf
Magglio Ordonez, lf
Ivan Rodriguez, c
Placido Polanco, 2b
Dan Haren, p
Jose Reyes, ss
Barry Bonds, lf
Carlos Beltran, cf
Ken Griffey Jr., rf
David Wright, 3b
Prince Fielder, 1b
Russell Martin, c
Chase Utley, 2b
Jake Peavy, p
Then again, hitting could be a challenge in the Northern California twilight, necessitated by the 5 p.m. PT starting time to televise the game in prime time on the East Coast. A record 21 strikeouts were amassed under similar conditions in 1984 at Candlestick Park, establishing a template for what could unfold tonight.
"It's going to be bad," said Bonds, who knows AT&T Park better than any other All-Star. "It's going to be terrible, honestly, until that sun goes down. You can't see the ball at all."
It's worth remembering that neither of the previous two All-Star Games in San Francisco were normal. Besides the strikeout-filled affair in '84, the 1961 confrontation at Candlestick was played under intense heat until the late innings, when heavy gusts forced Giants reliever Stu Miller to wobble on the mound and commit a balk.
Pitching might dominate the action even under ordinary circumstances. Peavy is 9-3 with a 2.19 ERA, a .213 opponents' batting average and 125 strikeouts in 119 innings. Haren is 10-3, 2.30 with an opponents' average of .205 and 101 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings -- although he did yield Bonds' 720th career home run last season. Both 26, Peavy and Haren represent the influx of young pitchers that has energized the game.
To listen to Peavy, merely performing isn't enough.
"I can't promise you anything about tomorrow night," he said, "but I can promise you I'll be competing."