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Final Vote battles tight as deadline nears

Final Vote battles tight as deadline nears

Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay and Corey Hart of Milwaukee each were leading close two-man races with only hours remaining in the Monster 2008 All-Star Game Final Vote, as the record number of votes by fans worldwide passed 42 million -- more than half as many as in all previous years combined.

Votes were coming in at one million per hour, indicating a last-day surge that probably will be unlike anything ever seen before at MLB.com -- and a volume that could change anything. Balloting will close at 5 p.m. ET, ending a four-day process that began at 3 p.m. on Sunday, following the announcement of 31 starters per league for the 79th All-Star Game on July 15 at Yankee Stadium.

At 10 a.m. ET today, it was announced that Longoria and Hart were in front, meaning they have led in every official update announcement since the first one on Monday afternoon. This could be the Year of the Kid in the Final Vote, as the two players with the least amount of Major League service of any of the 10 candidates have more than held their own against some marquee veterans.

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The American League race is proof that you don't need a homestand throughout a Final Vote process, and it's also a battle of players on division leaders. Longoria, the Rays' rookie sensation at third base, is mainly trying to hold off White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye, and both have been on the road. They have separated themselves from first baseman Jason Giambi of the Yankees, second baseman Brian Roberts of the Orioles and outfielder Jose Guillen of the Royals, all of whom have continued to receive impressive fan support.

Hart, the Brewers' second-year outfielder, chatted online with fans on Wednesday afternoon and is unquestionably benefiting from a distinctive "I Hart NY" grassroots campaign that has turned Milwaukee into one giant candy heart. He is still getting a run for his money in the National League competition from David Wright, the two-time All-Star third baseman of the Mets. Trailing those two are outfielders Pat Burrell of the Phillies, Aaron Rowand of the Giants and Carlos Lee of the Astros.

Two winners will be announced on MLB.com shortly after the balloting ends.

No matter who wins, this contest will be remembered as the one in which online voting went through the roof. The Final Vote was incrementally big in its first six years, a concept born in 2002 to put an end to squabbling about All-Star snubs and drawing some 80 million votes over that span. The absence of a Fourth of July holiday break during the 2008 proceedings is probably one of the reasons that balloting has been so strong this week, but mainly it is a passion for individual candidates and for being able to make a real difference in a game that ultimately gives World Series home-field advantage to the league that wins the Midsummer Classic.

It also is seen as a challenge by many fans. There are many big-market/small-market perceptions, and the immediate reaction by many fans upon seeing two New York marquee names on the 2008 Final Vote sent a lot of fans into action right away. To date, Hideki Matsui (2004, Yankees) is the only New York nominee to win a Final Vote. Giambi finished behind 2003 AL Final Vote winner Jason Varitek of the Red Sox. Scott Podsednik of the White Sox overtook Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in 2005, and Billy Wagner was a Mets reliever when he lost his second consecutive Final Vote in 2006.

Will those Yankees and Mets fan bases rush to the polls in these final hours? Can the White Sox still make Dye their third Final Vote winner in a four-year span? Do Burrell's campaigners have any gas left in the tank after three days?

The 100 millionth vote in the history of the Monster All-Star Game Final Vote was cast Tuesday night, and fans needed only half as long as last year to demolish the 2007 Final Vote record of 23.2 million. Amazingly, there are going to be more than twice as many votes in 2008 as last year.

While many fans have been voting over and over on their computers, mobile voting continues and is contributing an increasingly larger share of the overall numbers. Far more than a million votes have come in from cell phones. You can cast your mobile vote by texting "Vote" to 36197 to receive the list of Final Vote candidates. (In Canada, text "Vote" to 88555.)

Two of the leaders were actually facing off while the third-day update was being announced at MLB.com on Wednesday, and they were both making news in different ways. During the Rays-Yankees game in New York, Major League Baseball announced that Longoria had just won the AL Rookie of the Month Award for June -- hitting .300 with eight homers and 19 RBIs in that month. Meanwhile, Yankee Stadium was filled with fake mustaches as part of the "Support the 'Stache" campaign for Giambi.

"It's going to be exciting to see how it turns out," Longoria said. "If I make it, I'll be here [at Yankee Stadium]. If not, I've got plans for the break anyway. ... I haven't thought about it one bit other than when I'm here at the field."

Overall, Longoria is batting .281 with 16 homers and 53 RBIs since his callup during the month of April. He earned an immediate reputation for clutch hitting, too, becoming no stranger to the walk-off reception party at home plate. He is synonymous with the 2008 breakout of the Rays, who are now starting to feel some heat again from the Red Sox and perhaps the Yankees in the AL East.

Dye, an All-Star in 2000 and 2006, is batting .298 with 19 homers and 52 RBIs. Any mention of his performance must include his glove out in right, and his quiet leadership has been a big factor as the White Sox continue to lead in the AL Central.

Hart is batting .293 with 14 homers and 56 RBIs, helping the Brewers remain in contention in the NL Central. Baseball is electric there right now, with the addition of CC Sabathia and the sight of Ryan Braun zooming from nowhere to No. 1 starting outfielder for the NL next week. The club designed a pink candy heart into the dirt behind the batter's box this week, candy hearts have been given out to fans, and it has turned into one of the most unstoppable campaigns in Final Vote history.

Wright has a .283 average to go with 17 homers and a total of 70 RBIs that ties him for third in the NL. His Mets have won five in a row and are within just 1 1/2 games of Burrell's Phillies in the NL East. Wright made it clear at the outset that he was going to do his campaigning on the field only.

The incredible week of fan voting has been merely an extension of what has been happening at MLB.com the past month. During the online balloting process to decide starters, 214.7 million votes from 16.5 million ballots were cast at MLB.com and the 30 individual club sites, even though there were seven fewer days in the voting cycle than in 2007. These record figures each represent increases of nearly 40 percent over the previous marks for total votes and ballots cast.

With the majority of the individual races going down to the wire, fans cast their votes online at unprecedented rates -- more than 41 million votes in the final 24 hours of online balloting were cast last Wednesday. That mark was 57 percent higher than the previous single-day record, 26 million, set on the final day of online balloting in 2005.

Previous winners of the Monster All-Star Game Final Vote include Hideki Okajima (AL) and Chris Young (NL) in 2007; A.J. Pierzynski (AL) and Nomar Garciaparra (NL) in 2006; Podsednik (AL) and Roy Oswalt (NL) in 2005; Matsui (AL) and Bobby Abreu (NL) in 2004; Varitek (AL) and Geoff Jenkins (NL) in 2003; and Johnny Damon (AL) and Andruw Jones (NL) in 2002.

Once the Final Vote has been decided, there is still work to do. Fans will have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet at the 79th All-Star Game through the Monster 2008 All-Star Game MVP Vote on MLB.com.

The 79th Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet HD, and around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pregame ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive national radio coverage that will also be available on XM Satellite Radio, and MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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