That begins a three-day baseball festival in downtown St. Louis, culminating Tuesday night in the 80th Major League Baseball All-Star Game. St. Louis, which proudly proclaims itself "Baseball Heaven," has been waiting for this moment since it was announced 2 1/2 years ago that the All-Star Game would be played at Busch Stadium.
They hosted a couple of World Series here already this decade. But the All-Star Game is a whole different spectacle.
"Some people have said that they think that Interleague Play has diluted it," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I really don't think so. As you see the excitement build, the number of people who vote, the number of people who vote for the 33rd player and so on, the popularity of the game has just grown. And the idea of one night, seeing the best players in baseball from both leagues out on the field is just terrific."
But it starts with the best players from the Minor Leagues on one field. On Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, the most exciting prospects from all over the Minors will take to Busch Stadium for the XM All-Star Futures Game. It's the opening act for a big three days of baseball, but for the young men who play in it, it's very much the main event.
"It's going to be exciting," said Cardinals prospect Brett Wallace, who will play third base and bat third for the United States team. "You feed off the energy of these fans. My goal is to be a St. Louis Cardinal and play every day here. Getting an opportunity to play in that stadium, in front of those fans, to put on an actual uniform and play in an actual game, and not just take batting practice, I think there will definitely be some jitters the first inning or so."
After the kids finish playing, a very different kind of event gets under way. Later on Sunday afternoon, it's the Taco Bell Legends and Celebrity Softball Game, which like everything this week will feature a St. Louis feel. That game, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. ET, will include former Cardinals greats Ozzie Smith and Bruce Sutter on the legends team. The celebrity squad will likewise have a hometown feel, with local stars including rapper Nelly, NASCAR driver Carl Edwards and Jenna Fischer from TV's "The Office."
For some fans, though, the highlight of the week comes on Monday. The State Farm Home Run Derby is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on Monday, and once again, the home fans will have someone to cheer for. Monday begins Albert Pujols' portion of All-Star week, as the Cardinals slugger aims for his first Home Run Derby crown. He was a finalist in 2003 but has never won the event.
Whereas the National League squad features four feared bashers -- Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez -- the AL is represented by some guys not as known for thunderous power. But given some of the surprising winners in the past, that doesn't mean the winner is sure to come from the senior circuit. One intriguing name is the Twins' Joe Mauer, a high-average hitter who has come into some power this year.
"I just think it's a great event," Mauer said. "Home Run Derby -- I always told my buddies when we were younger -- we always played it in the back yard and stuff like that. I always told them, if I ever had the opportunity to do it, I would jump at it, and it happened this year."
Still, while the Derby has become the premier event to some fans, there's no doubt that the highlight of the week remains the big game at the end. The Midsummer Classic gets started a little after 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, and it's an event St. Louis has waited a long time for. The last All-Star Game here was in 1966, at the previous Busch Stadium.
The '66 game saw Cardinal Tim McCarver score the winning run. The 2009 game will feature two Redbirds in the starting lineup -- catcher Yadier Molina and of course Pujols -- plus relief pitcher Ryan Franklin. Pujols, a two-time MVP, is in his eighth All-Star Game, but playing at home brings something extra special to it.
"It feels great to be there, representing the organization and the city that you play in," Pujols said. "Last year was a great experience in New York, looking back and seeing the standing ovations for [Derek] Jeter and [Alex Rodriguez]. I'm pretty sure when they call all our three names, it's going to be the same thing. It's just great for the fans. I think MLB did a great job [choosing] St. Louis. And I think it's going to be really exciting."