This is the day when baseball players unabashedly become fans and it all becomes a game again, if only for one night.
The 61st annual All-Star game will be played at Wrigley Field tonight under a threat of rain but with a promise of a show of pitching and power and pure enjoyment.
"To be around guys who are the best players in baseball is quite an honor," said Philadelphia Phillies' outfielder Len Dykstra, the major leagues' leading hitter with a .360 average. "Being in the clubhouse is such a thrill, I'm just trying to drink all of it in."
Said Barry Bonds of the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose .340 average ranks him right behind Dykstra in the National League: "It's incredible. It's great. It's like being in the World Series."
The American League, winner of the last two games and three of the last four, is serious about maintaining this trend, but the NL is intent upon regaining honor lost last summer and in the last World Series.
Tony La Russa, whose Oakland Athletics won the 1989 AL pennant and World Series, isn't taking his second consecutive All-Star managing assignment lightly.
"We're not treating this as an exhibition," said La Russa, who named one of his own pitchers, 13-game winner Bob Welch, to start. "We worked very hard to put this club together, and we want to win. When you put a squad together and you hear people complain that they're not on it, that says a lot of things."
NL Manager Roger Craig of the San Francisco Giants said he is also out to win, although he vowed to get as many players into the game as possible. His starter will be right-hander Jack Armstrong (11-3) of the Western Division-leading Cincinnati Reds.
"I told my wife I can't make a mistake no matter who I put in," said Craig, a rookie All-Star manager. "I really feel this is not an exhibition. I feel this game is very important to the National League, and we're going to do everything we can to win it."
The National Weather Service is predicting thundershowers for the evening. If it's rained out, it will be played Wednesday, wiping out five AL lockout-makeup games--including the Angels' game at Seattle. Those rescheduled games would be rescheduled yet again, a baseball spokesman said.
Although the AL might have the edge tonight in home run production with Oakland's Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the starting lineup and major league home run leader Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tiger coming off the bench, the NL believes that it can meet that challenge with a potent blend of speed and pitching.
"We've had speed before, but a lot of guys in the NL this year are stronger," said seven-time All-Star Darryl Strawberry, who has lately been on a tear that has carried him to second place in the NL home run race and the New York Mets within half a game of first place in the NL East.
"Barry Bonds has really come along, Lenny Dykstra's there, and we have different-style hitters. The power hitters are still there, like (the Chicago Cubs') Andre Dawson and (the Giants') Kevin Mitchell, but we've got more power hitters on the team this year than we've had for a long time."
After Armstrong, Craig plans to use Ramon Martinez of the Dodgers, the NL leader in strikeouts (131) and complete games (six). He will pitch to his Dodger batterymate, Mike Scioscia, who will start in place of injured Benito Santiago of the San Diego Padres.
"It's like a dream, like a real dream to me," said Martinez, whose 18-strikeout game against the Atlanta Braves on June 4 is the NL's highest this season. "I never thought I could be here. When the season started, I said, 'I will try to have a good year,' but to make the All-Star team is something I did not dream about.
"I don't feel pressure to strike out everybody. I will try to do well if I get the chance. I am very excited about getting the chance."
La Russa will use Angel left-hander Chuck Finley "in the early to middle innings," aware that Finley was warming up in the bullpen in last year's game when the AL wrapped up its 5-3 victory at Anaheim Stadium.
Finley, who leads the league with a 2.54 earned-run average and ranks among the leaders with 11 victories, is thrilled at the prospect of pitching in front of his parents, who flew to Chicago from Monroe, La., for the occasion.
"It's exciting to me just being here," he said. "I've never been in an NL park, but I've seen this place on TV before and I'm enjoying myself. I knew this year that I might get the chance and I can't wait to get in there. I'm sure they won't ask any more than one inning, and that's fine. Whatever they want from me is fine."
Simply being back in the major leagues would have been fine with Fielder, who a year ago was in Japan. To be the major leagues' most prolific home run hitter--with 28--and an All-Star was almost staggering to the 27-year-old Los Angeles native.
"I'm just overwhelmed," he said. "The main thing is I'm thrilled to be doing well for Detroit."
Even repeat All-Stars such as San Diego's Tony Gwynn are affected by the weight of the event.
"It's always an honor to be here," Gwynn said. "It doesn't matter if you're starting, coming off the bench or not playing at all.
"I didn't think I'd make it this year if I wasn't voted in. I was elated (to be added). I wanted the chance to go out there and prove myself."
Welch, who has gone 10 years between All-Star appearances--he was a Dodger when he pitched for the NL in 1980--wants to prevail.
"I like to win, whether it's softball, checkers, whatever," he said. "I haven't faced the NL in a while, but I've got to concentrate on what I've got to do, not worry so much about what they hit. . . . I've had a chance to be (picked for) 11, and every one, I sat at home and wished I was here, wished I was starting."
Scioscia, making his first All-Star start, is enjoying the camaraderie most of all.
"It's a fun atmosphere, different from the regular season," he said. "There's no pressure. It's fun and everyone enjoys it. It's just great to be part of it."
The fans camped out on the rooftops of houses on Waveland Avenue, the street behind Wrigley Field's outfield, might have an active part in the game if the wind is blowing out.
Said Canseco: "Tell them to go put gloves on."
Player Team Pos. Rickey Henderson A's LF Wade Boggs Red Sox 3B Jose Canseco A's RF Cal Ripken Orioles SS Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners CF Mark McGwire A's 1B Sandy Alomar Indians C Steve Sax Yankees 2B Bob Welch A's P
Player Team Pos. Lenny Dykstra Phillies CF Ryne Sandberg Cubs 2B Will Clark Giants 1B Kevin Mitchell Giants LF Andre Dawson Cubs RF Chris Sabo Reds 3B Mike Scioscia Dodgers C Ozzie Smith Cardinals SS Jack Armstrong Reds P