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Votebook: No dearth of good backstops

Votebook: No dearth of good backstops

He reigned as the premier catcher in baseball for the better part of 20 years. Fill out an All-Star Game ballot in the 1990s and early 2000s, and you knew that punching any other catcher's name but his bordered on blasphemy.

Pudge Rodriquez, a 14-time All-Star, was the game's gold standard, even as catchers like Mike Piazza, Jason Kendall, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Jorge Posada built All-Star credentials of their own.

Pudge was always the people's choice -- perhaps until now.

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Major League Baseball has a new generation of star catchers. They are young men who have yanked the spotlight from warhorses like Rodriguez, Piazza, Kendall and Posada.

So as baseball prepares for its 79th Midsummer Classic on July 15, it might be saying farewell to more than just Yankee Stadium; it might be saying farewell to catching's old guard.

Of course, Pudge, a Tiger who remains a defensive force, might still win the starting spot, and the 36-year-old Posada, who has been injured for most of the season, might get the call from fans who want to salute his hard-nosed play in Yankees pinstripes.

"It would be nice, especially where the game's going to be," Rodriguez said. "It's going to be exciting and fun. I have memories in that clubhouse and in the park. It would be good. It'll be special there. First of all, I have to be selected. I just have to try to do the things that I have to do, to do the job and to have a quality performance to be there and participate. It's fun, it's good and it's always a nice thing to go."

What many fans may do, however, is honor the catchers of today, not the ones from yesterday. If so, they will have plenty of quality choices.

In the American League, the Indians' Victor Martinez and the Twins' Joe Mauer have become the standard bearers for this new wave of catchers. Both have All-Star appearances on their Major League resumes.

"It's an awesome feeling," Mauer said. "The best players in the world play in that game, and for you to be one of them is special. Just to look around the clubhouse and see the amount of talent that's in one room."

And what he and Martinez have done is continue what Pudge and Piazza did before them: make the position of catcher one in which offense matters.

"Fans are going to look at an offensive player, which is understandable," said Ray Fosse, a former All-Star catcher who's now a radio broadcaster for the Athletics. "But from a catcher's standpoint, handling the pitching staff is the most important job."

Both Mauer and Martinez have blossomed in their handling of pitchers. But they are both elite hitters, and Mauer has a batting title to prove it. Both men are among the league leaders in hitting this season, which shows how the position has evolved.

The National League has a handful of good-fielding, good-hitting catchers, too.

From the East to the West Coast, the league boasts four of them who are under 26. Brian McCann (Braves), Yadier Molina (Cardinals), Geovany Soto (Cubs) and Russell Martin (Dodgers) have emerged as serious candidates for All-Star consideration.

McCann and Martin are .300 hitters who have already made at least one All-Star appearance. They'd welcome a return.

"Who doesn't -- especially this year, the last chance to play in Yankee Stadium?" Martin said. "If I get selected, great; if not, maybe next year."

His competition is stiff. Soto is the new kid on the block, and has Cubs fans and NL opponents equally in awe. The Rookie of the Year candidate leads all NL catchers in home runs and RBIs.

Add in a twenty-something like Chris Snyder (Diamondbacks) plus old pros like Bengie Molina (Giants) and Brian Schneider (Mets), and voters will have an easy time finding candidates in the NL who are having All-Star-caliber seasons.

Picking between them, however, will be a voter's conundrum.

Even in the AL, fans will have more than Mauer and Martinez to pick from. A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox) might be having his best season, and few catchers in either league play with Pierzynski's grit.

An All-Star Game in New York City would seem a perfect fit for Pierzynski. In a tough city that never quits, Pierzynski might be the poster child for the Big Apple, which will play host to an All-Star Game for the eighth time.

Adding to the AL mix is a darkhorse from Southern California who has taken the league by surprise this season. Mike Napoli (Angels) leads all catchers with 10 home runs, despite sharing playing time with Jeff Mathis.

Fans everywhere have already been selecting their favorites, who will be playing on the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium for the last time this season. The storied ballpark will be torn down like Forbes, Ebbets, Shibe, Comiskey, Crosley and other "green cathedrals" from baseball's past were.

"Every stadium you go to play an All-Star Game in has something special to it," Mauer said. "But to see it's in New York, that would definitely be a fun one to go to. They are all fun, but that's definitely one that I would like to be a part of. "

Whether Mauer, Martinez, Pierzynski, Posada, Napoli, Rodriguez or any other catcher will go as a starting catcher will rest with the fans.

Fans can cast their votes for starters up to 25 times online with the Monster All-Star Online Ballot at MLB.com and all club sites until July at 11:59 p.m. ET.

The starters for both leagues will be announced on July 6 during the 2008 All-Star Game Selection Show, presented by Chevrolet, on TBS.

But fans will have an opportunity to select more than just the starters. Through the Monster 2008 All-Star Final Vote at MLB.com, they can select the final player for each league. It will be a chance to honor a player who might have been overlooked in the original balloting.

The voting doesn't stop there either. Fans will be able to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player, presented by Chevrolet, through the Monster 2008 All-Star Game MVP vote at MLB.com.

FOX Sports will broadcast the All-Star Game nationally, and Major League Baseball International will have the global TV rights. ESPN Radio will provide national radio play-by-play, and MLB.com will provide fans with extensive online coverage.

And the stars will be shining brightly in Yankee Stadium, regardless of who ends up as the starting catchers in the ballgame.

"It's a tremendous honor," Fosse said. "To be picked by [manager] Earl Weaver in '70 and then selected by the fans in 1971, I mean, that was a thrill. There's no doubt."

Justice B. Hill 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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