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ALL-STAR GAME PLAY BALL : Finally, It’s ‘Batter Up’ at the Big A

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

After six years of preparation and weeks of hype, Major League Baseball’s annual midsummer gala, a glittering mix of talented athletes, adoring fans and party-hopping business leaders, culminates today with the 60th All-Star game at Anaheim Stadium.

More than 64,000 fans are expected to fill the freshly scrubbed Big A, trimmed in red, white and blue bunting, while millions more listen and watch on radio and TV as baseball’s best return to Anaheim for the first time since 1967 when the city last played host to the All-Star game.

In an event that has been precisely programmed to showcase and market America’s national pastime, the game’s first pitch will be thrown at 5:35 p.m. PDT--prime time on the East Coast--by the American League’s Dave Stewart, a 13-game winner this year for the Oakland Athletics.

As Stewart takes the mound, an estimated TV audience of 51 million viewers is expected to switch on the game, which marks the midpoint of a season that has already proven memorable. From the nation’s movie houses, where the baseball film “Field of Dreams” has been a smash hit, to the courtroom, where former All-Star hero Pete Rose has been confronted by gambling allegations, baseball has received unprecedented attention.

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Through it all, rising attendance and television ratings have proven that the sport is more popular than ever.

By game time, All-Star fever will already have stricken thousands of county residents and countless visitors who converged Monday on the Big A to witness the National and American league squads work out and compete in a highly popular home-run hitting contest.

It was a rare chance for those unable--or unwilling to pay scalpers’ soaring prices--to obtain tickets to today’s game, to ogle and cheer their heroes--56 in all--for $5. Under a bright sun, more than 35,000 fans turned out in shorts and T-shirts. Some carried autograph books, others scraps of paper and even hot dog wrappers, hoping for a prized signature. A myriad of baseball caps displayed the logos and loyalties of numerous teams. The Big A may be home to the currently front-running California Angels of the American League West. But beginning Monday, the stadium belonged to anyone who has a passion for baseball.

Eleven-year-old Danny Setlak of Tustin was not disappointed.

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“I get to see all the great players, the homers, the people, everything,” he exclaimed, a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck. Standing nearby, his mother, Linda, smiled.

“My son Danny loves baseball,” she said. “He eats it, he sleeps it, he talks it.”

The All-Star game has indeed been the talk of Orange County in recent weeks. As one of the diamond events of the county’s centennial celebration, the political and powerful embraced baseball’s summer bash to polish and expand Orange County’s image for the contingent of 1,000 reporters and broadcasters who will relay the story worldwide.

The All-Star game is expected to infuse between $20 million and $40 million into the local economy, experts predict. But it is the game’s public relations value that may be more closely monitored by the city of Anaheim, Orange County and the host team, the Angels.

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While their Southern California counterparts, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have been champions of baseball twice in this decade, including last year, the Angels have never been in the World Series. Angels officials are hoping to win a measure of respect from the baseball establishment--and steal some thunder from the Dodgers--with this All-Star game.

Anaheim officials, too, have their motives for wanting a smooth-running, trouble-free game today. They have their eye on landing the jackpot of sporting events, pro football’s Super Bowl, a weeklong extravaganza that means tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

For Orange County, some civic leaders say tonight’s All-Star game represents another step in the county’s deliverance from the shadows of its high-profile neighbor, Los Angeles. Regionally, Orange County has firmed up its identity as a economically independent and culturally emerging entity. But nationally, observers say, the county still suffers from underexposure.

“The All-Star game is a chance to strut our stuff,” said Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

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Said Ron Merriman, a board member of the Orange County Centennial Committee:

“The All-Star game is really the exclamation mark (to the county’s centennial celebration). It’s really hard to duplicate in terms of getting the national and international attention.”

To capitalize on the exposure, All-Star organizers have hardly left a minute unplanned, beginning with Monday’s team workouts and home-run hitting contest, won by the National League. But it was the American League’s Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals who stole the show.

“I came to see Bo,” said Joe Rodriguez, the owner of a Santa Ana gymnasium, who took the day off to watch his hero. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. You’ve got to skip work.”

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Rodriguez was not disappointed. On Jackson’s third swing, he hit one deep into the left field bleachers, about 450 feet from home plate.

The big winners Monday were a handful of local charity groups, which will divide the proceeds from ticket sales to the workout. In what has become an All-Star tradition.

Club officials said that at least $40,000 will be divided among five county groups, with the bulk going to Orange County Hall of Fame, a private organization of business owners and executives who support dozens of youth sports programs. The other organizations are the Orangewood Children’s Foundation, which supports the Orangewood Home for abused and neglected children; the pediatric and cancer unit at Childrens hospital of Orange County; the county chapter of 65 Roses, a cystic fibrosis support group, and the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section.

Times staff writers Eric Bailey, Ann Conway, Lily Eng and Mark Landsbaum contributed to this story.

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MORE COVERAGE--Stories in Part II, Sports and Business.


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