ALL-STAR GAME : NL Wins Battle of Homeric Proportions : All-Star game: Nomo draws crowd but shot by Conine in eighth inning is the difference in 3-2 victory as home runs provide all scoring.
There was an Elvis-like aura surrounding Hideo Nomo’s entrance into the 66th All-Star game Tuesday night, but the Dodger rookie and media darling had to share the spotlight with some obscure guy from an expansion team.
Florida Marlin outfielder Jeff Conine, who was picked for the 1994 All-Star team but didn’t play in the game, drove a Steve Ontiveros pitch into the left- field bleachers for a bases-empty home run in the top of the eighth inning to lift the National League to a 3-2 victory over the American League before 50,920 in The Ballpark at Arlington.
Conine’s homer, which snapped a 2-2 tie on a sweltering, 96-degree evening, capped an N.L. comeback that was achieved with only three hits--all home runs that were hit from the sixth inning on.
Houston Astro second baseman Craig Biggio homered off Cleveland’s Dennis Martinez in the sixth inning and Dodger catcher Mike Piazza homered off Texas’ Kenny Rogers in the seventh.
Nomo started and threw two scoreless and impressive innings, but it was Conine, in his fifth major league season, who walked away with the game’s most valuable player trophy, which will easily displace the ball he hit for his first major-league home run as the centerpiece on his mantel.
“That’s what usually happens in these All-Star games,” San Diego Padre outfielder Tony Gwynn said. “There’s always one guy who comes in with all the focus. . . . photographers followed Nomo to the bathroom Monday--man, you just don’t see that.
“He deserves all that attention and it’s great for the game, but as we’re leaving, the focus is on someone else. And I bet you not many of you guys talked to Conine, with the exception of the writers from Florida, while you were here.”
They did Tuesday night. Conine, whose Marlin team is struggling with a 24-42 record, 18 games behind Atlanta in the East, spent the post-game shuttling between national television and radio interviews, the interview room, and the clubhouse, where a huge throng of reporters awaited.
“To get all this attention with one swing of the bat. . . . I wouldn’t say it’s cheap, but I’ll take it,” Conine said. “This has got to throw my name somewhere out there, and that’s fine with me.”
Conine said he was a “little disappointed” that he didn’t play in last year’s All-Star game, “but I was so overwhelmed being in that company, it didn’t take away from the experience.”
Hitting the game-winning homer and winning the MVP trophy “made up for last year,” Conine said. “If I don’t play for another five years, that would be fine with me.”
San Francisco Giant third baseman Matt Williams didn’t play in the All-Star game because of a foot injury, but he still had a hand in the victory. It was Williams who gave Conine a quick scouting report on Ontiveros, the Oakland Athletic right-hander.
“Matt faced him a lot in spring training and said he threw mostly sliders and curves,” Conine said. “I looked at one slider and he threw another one out over the plate, and I knew it was gone the minute I hit it.
“You grow up playing sandlot baseball in your back yard, Little League, and you always put yourself in a big-game situation, in the post-season or All-Star game, and winning it with a homer.”
Conine’s drive went an estimated 410 feet and was the 16th pinch-hit homer in All-Star game history. Conine also became the 10th player to homer in his first All-Star at-bat. The last was Kansas City’s Bo Jackson, who homered to lead off the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim Stadium.
“He doesn’t say a lot and he didn’t bitch about not playing last year, but you could see it in his eyes that he wanted to play this year,” Gwynn said of Conine. “And you could see it in his dad’s eyes. He wanted him to play.”
Conine’s father, Jerry, was among the largest crowd to see a game in the Texas Rangers’ new--or old--stadium. “He probably knocked down about six guys around him when I hit the homer,” Conine said.
For most of the evening, it was the pitchers who were knocking down batters, as the highly anticipated pitching matchup between Nomo and Seattle Mariner left-hander Randy Johnson lived up to its billing.
Nomo, who received a fax from the Japanese prime minister wishing him luck before the game, was engulfed by a wave of about 60 TV cameras and still photographers as he entered the N.L. dugout. All that was missing was a public-address announcement: “Nomo has entered the building.”
But the right-hander seemed oblivious to the attention, as he pitched to the minimum six batters in his two innings, striking out three and allowing only a single to Cleveland’s Carlos Baerga, who was thrown out by Piazza trying to steal second.
Johnson, the 6-foot-10 Mariner ace, was up to the task, also pitching to the minimum six batters and striking out three. He walked Philadelphia’s Lenny Dykstra to lead off the game, but Texas’ catcher Ivan Rodriguez threw Dykstra out trying to steal second.
Johnson was followed by Kansas City’s Kevin Appier and Martinez, who combined to no-hit the NL over the first 5 2/3 innings, the longest a team has gone in the All-Star game without a hit.
But just as the press-box announcer was notifying the media of that record, Biggio launched a homer into the left-field bleachers to make it 2-1.
Frank Thomas had given the AL a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning when he became the first Chicago White Sox player to hit an all-star homer, sending a John Smiley pitch into the second deck in left field--an estimated 418 feet away.
The two-run blast was the ultimate hit-and-run play. Thomas, who won Monday’s home-run derby, left the park moments after the homer to catch a flight to Chicago, where the White Sox are scheduled to play the Milwaukee Brewers tonight.
Piazza, who failed to hit a home run in 20 swings during the 1993 and ’94 home run derbies, tied the game in the seventh with his homer to right-center field, and Chicago Cub left-hander Randy Myers pitched a scoreless ninth to save the victory for Philadelphia reliever Heathcliff Slocumb.
“We were taken aback by the Texas heat, so we conserved our energy,” Conine said. “Three swings. That’s all we needed.”