All-Star Game particularly rich this year
Fresh faces and intriguing strategy mark Midsummer Classic
DETROIT -- This one counts, and the countdown is just about over.
Major League Baseball's 76th All-Star Game will start at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night, with Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox staring down Bobby Abreu of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Comerica Park will be packed to the rafters with over 40,000 baseball fans as the Motor City hosts its first Midsummer Classic in 34 years. The American League will try to stretch its undefeated string to nine seasons.
As usual, the managers -- in this case, Terry Francona of the AL and Tony La Russa of the National League -- will try to make the most of their absurdly talent-rich 32-man rosters, pitchers will only throw one or two innings, and the box score will matter in the history books but not the standings.
Still, there's a lot more to this All-Star Game than the usual, and if you read between the baselines, it's a lot more than your average exhibition game.
First off, this one really does count.
For the third straight year, the winning league in the All-Star Game earns bragging rights for 12 months, but also gets home-field advantage in the World Series.
This didn't seem to matter much in 2003, when the New York Yankees opened up in "The House That Ruth Built" and the Florida Marlins still conquered them in six games.
But the Boston Red Sox made the most of their first two games at Fenway Park in the 2004 Fall Classic and ended up sweeping La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals.
"I do think that home field is a significant edge or advantage to the club that has it," La Russa said. "I don't care what the sport is, including ours. We all play better at home and it's very important."
But La Russa and many of the All-Star players seemed to agree that the intensity of play in the game won't necessarily increase because of the raised stakes. From clubhouse to clubhouse, the overwhelming sentiment is that league pride, the sky-high competitive nature of the world-class athlete and pure adrenaline will take over once the first pitch is thrown.
"When you're digging into the box, it's another baseball game," three-time All Star outfielder Garret Anderson said. "You're trying to do the same things you always do, and that's win a ballgame."
"None of us are going to play any differently," NL pitcher Dontrelle Willis added. "I think everyone wants to win regardless of home field or anything like that. We're all competitive. You go about your business on the field the same way."
That said, don't think for a second that strategy won't change when home-field advantage is on the line.
La Russa, known throughout his managerial career as an innovative strategist, will likely pull out a few stops to try to get the right matchups.
"I've played the whole game in my mind, this is how we start it, this is how we're going to end it, this is who we have to save," La Russa said.
"The best thing would be to have about a nine-run lead, so you can get everybody in there in the top of the ninth, and save one pitcher. But it's not going to happen that way. I've played it in my mind a few times. We'll see how it goes."
La Russa already provided one interesting wrinkle, putting run-producing Abreu in the leadoff spot. Abreu, probably not coincidentally, is 5-for-9 against Buehrle.
Meanwhile, La Russa's starting shortstop on the Cardinals and the NL team, David Eckstein, said he thinks both teams will look to take advantage of their little-ball game and the vast dimensions of Comerica.
"Because it's a big park, you might see some hit-and-run, some bunting, you might see guys taking the extra base," Eckstein said.
In addition to how the game is played, there will be a big difference in who plays the game.
This year, for the first time in recent memory, a who's who of the game's greats are absent and have made way for a new regime of superstars.
For various reasons, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Todd Helton and Tom Glavine are not in Detroit, marking the first time since 1989 that at least one of these perennial All-Stars didn't make the cut.
Also, four of the five active members of the 400-plus homer club -- Jeff Bagwell (injured), Thomas (recently returned from injury), Jim Thome (injured) and Juan Gonzalez (injured) -- are not here (starter Alex Rodriguez is the fifth), and neither is one of the game's most popular players, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who lost out in a close Final Vote to White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik.
"I'm a huge fan of Derek's," said Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young, who made Francona's team over Jeter. "He's an incredible player. It's unfortunate because Derek is very deserving."
But Young is deserving and so are plenty of new faces.
Starters Mark Teixeira, Brian Roberts, Derrek Lee, Eckstein and Aramis Ramirez, who will start for the NL at third base in place of injured Scott Rolen, are among 23 first-time All-Stars this year.
Podsednik, NL Final vote winner Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, B.J. Ryan, Matt Clement, Morgan Ensberg, Felipe Lopez, Brian Fuentes, Jon Garland, Brad Lidge, Cesar Izturis, Johan Santana, Justin Duchscherer, Jason Bay, Jake Peavy, Chris Carpenter, Danys Baez and Chad Cordero all will make their All-Star debuts.
"It's cool to give somebody else a chance, but it will be kind of weird not seeing [the usual guys] all there," said Washington Nationals closer Cordero, the NL's Pitcher of the Month for June.
"It's going to be a lot of fun for the new guys. We can now say we are All-Stars. That's cool in itself right there."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.