So they gather again, for the 59th time in 55 years, baseball's best and brightest and those with friends willing to spend every waking moment in the last two months punching ballots.
They are baseball's All-Stars, and they have come to Riverfront Stadium this week to sign baseballs and trade bats, to put each other in giant headlocks and pose for goofy pictures. They remind us after one-half of a broiling season that, yes, baseball is still for little boys.
San Diego Padres pitcher Mark Davis entered an All-Star clubhouse Monday afternoon for the first time in his five-year career, looked at the assembled players, and rubbed his eyes.
"It looks like ESPN in here," he said.
Oh, they will also play a game. Although forecasters predicted there is a 40% chance of periodic showers, it is scheduled to begin today at 5:37 p.m. PDT, with the best of the National League facing those from the American League.
If the game is rained out, it will be played Wednesday afternoon at a time to be determined.
If history is an indication, it will be a game of the unexpected and spectacular. Anybody remember the last time they had an All-Star game here, in 1970? Pete Rose collided with Ray Fosse in the bottom of the 12th inning and the National League won again.
Eighteen years later, the only thing that seems certain about the All-Star game is that after four innings, everybody will give up trying to keep score.
The 1988 facts:
The New York Mets' Dwight Gooden will start for the NL, Minnesota's Frank Viola will start for the AL.
Gooden will pitch no more than three innings, and then be followed Houston's Bob Knepper.
After Viola's three innings, Boston's Roger Clemens will take over.
"I'm glad I'm not starting. I'm getting to relax more," Clemens said. "Last time I started in this game (1986 in Houston), I was so hyped up, I got a nosebleed in the second inning."
The eight position starters for the NL and AL, as selected by the fans, will play at least three innings each.
The NL starting lineup includes three first-time all stars, and is backed by 8 of 10 bench players who are making their debuts.
"I feel like it's my first day of school," Cub pitcher Greg Maddux said.
The AL lineup includes three Oakland Athletics, all competent, but none of whom are as legendary as the guy in the Bay Area who set up a board with nails and punched out their names on ballots by the thousands.
"Is fan balloting right or wrong?" asked Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach, who is starting despite a .217 average with 5 home runs and 19 runs batted in. "I don't know. I can't tell you. But what's the worst I can do? Two at-bats and strike out twice? How bad is that?"
So much for the facts. The All-Star game lends itself not so much to statistics as arguments. It is not so much a game as a two-day clubhouse rap session.
When most of Monday's workouts were canceled because of a much-needed storm in these parts, only the National Leaguers took any batting practice, the players had plenty of time for debate, at least when they weren't signing about 28 dozen baseballs.
The abundance of first-time All - Stars.
This is this season's trendy topic. Eighteen of the 28 National Leaguers and 12 American Leaguers are making their debuts. Eight NL players and five AL players, are age 25 or younger. Mike Greenwell is an All-Star. Kurt Stillwell is an All-Star. Barry Larkin is an All-Star.
"Three or four years ago," Boston outfielder Greenwell noted, "this clubhouse would be full of guys like Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Eddie Murray. Not anymore. Many are like me, new. The game has definitely had a turnover."
Said Knepper: "I think we're seeing a crossover between two eras. We're getting a look at baseball in 1990. It's a transition that's happened rather suddenly."
Most players are blaming this transition on a mix of economics and youthful energy.
"Management is sort of pointing to this by getting rid of veterans and signing younger guys to smaller contracts," said Cub outfielder Andre Dawson, making his fifth All-Star appearance. "Management is thinking that if a young guy can do a similar job for less money, the older guy goes. Guys aren't spending as much time in the minors anymore."
Thus, said Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers, guys aren't expecting to spend as much time in the minor leagues.
"When I broke in, we expected to spend a few years getting ready," said Molitor, who will be starting at second base in his third All-Star game. "Now they get out of college and expect to go right to the big leagues. It's led to a bit of cockiness in today's young players, an attitude which has helped them stay and succeed."
Cockiness? Greenwell, in only his second season, was asked if he would have been disappointed if he didn't make the team.
He answered: "Man, I've got what, 65 RBIs? I'm hitting .337? Been among the league leaders all year in a bunch of categories? Man, you bet I'd be disappointed. Real disappointed."
Offered Stillwell, the Kansas City Royals' 23-year-old shortstop: "Maybe the young players are here because they are pretty darn good players."
The National League's dominance.
This is an overworked issue, except every July it surfaces in a more striking fashion than the previous year.
Dating to 1960 and not counting a 1961 tie, the NL has won 26 of the last 30 games. Overall, the NL has a 37-20-1 advantage.
That the AL has won two of the last five games seems incidental. That the NL seems to care more about this game is not.
"I've talked to some guys over here who have played on the National League team, and it's like they have a different attitude," said New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, whose starting spot has been taken by Oakland's Mark McGwire. "The guys in the NL take it more seriously; just look at a couple of years ago when Nolan Ryan was pitching. He was knocking down Dave Winfield, knocking down Rickey Henderson. That's serious stuff. It's not like that over here."
Serious stuff. Just ask Dawson, who ponders the question with something of a growl.
"There is some sort of pride that comes over us," he said. "I don't care what others think. I want to win."
But give NL Manager Whitey Herzog credit. On Monday, he was doing his best AL imitation.
"I was excited about this game as a kid, but not as a manager, except it means you won the pennant the year before," he said. "I just want to get everybody in the game, and I don't want anybody getting hurt . . . and then I want to win."
Allowing the fans to select the starters.
This takes a bit more prominence this year with the inclusion of Steinbach, who not only has been struggling at the plate but also missed a month this year with a hand injury.
"Who knows, maybe if I play that month, I'd have better numbers," said Steinbach, a one-year veteran who spent most of Monday uneasily defending his starting spot.
"I've been getting harassed about this a lot, even by my team," he said. "About the time I came back off the disabled list, the first polls ran showing the voting leaders, and when I was up there, all my teammates said, 'So, that's what you've been doing for the last month.
"No, I didn't vote. Who knows, maybe they chose me on a combination of this year and last year. I don't know. But there's nothing I can do about it."
Other players aren't so unsure.
"Fourteenth," exclaimed Seattle second baseman Harold Reynolds, hitting .291. "I'm here, and I finished 14th in the balloting."
So? Angel Johnny Ray is here, and the only votes he received were write-ins, 3,925 to be precise. Besides San Diego's Davis and Ray, the only other player from a Southern California team here is Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, not expected to see any more than an inning, at best, because he pitched Sunday.
CF Rickey Henderson N.Y. Yankees 2B Paul Molitor Milwaukee 3B Wade Boggs Boston LF Jose Canseco Oakland RF Dave Winfield N.Y. Yankees SS Cal Ripken Baltimore 1B Mark McGwire Oakland C Terry Steinbach Oakland P Frank Viola Minnesota
LF Vince Coleman St. Louis 2B Ryne Sandberg Chicago Cubs CF Andre Dawson Chicago Cubs RF Darryl Strawberry N.Y. Mets 3B Bobby Bonilla Pittsburgh 1B Will Clark San Francisco C Gary Carter N.Y. Mets SS Ozzie Smith St. Louis P Dwight Gooden N.Y. Mets