All-Star festivities a baseball bonanza
Futures Game, Home Run Derby and FanFest add to the fun
They call it the Valley of the Sun, and even under ordinary circumstances that is a misnomer. With few obstructions of clear nighttime skies, it is really the Valley of the Stars, which twinkle beguilingly into the horizon whenever the sun sets.For the next three extraordinary days, perception will meet reality, along with baseball regality, as the greater Phoenix area becomes the Valley of the All-Stars. Major League Baseball's annual midsummer clambake comes to a sun-baked land, a desert oasis of cool mists and hot Tex-Mex cuisine. Until the final out of Tuesday's 82nd All-Star Game, fans of baseball or of just good, memorable times will shuttle among attractions on wings of imagination and delight. From Sunday afternoon's XM All-Star Futures Game, to Sunday night's Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game, to Monday afternoon's Gatorade All-Star Workouts and the State Farm Home Run Derby, to Tuesday's appetizing All-Star Game Red Carpet Show, right through the Midsummer Classic itself ... well, welcome to Baseballpalooza '11. And threading through it all, linking the events like pearls on a string, is the MLB All-Star FanFest, which has been turning the Phoenix Convention Center into a baseball wonderland since Friday morning. More than 110,000 FanFest attendees are anticipated through Tuesday's 6 p.m. MT last call, adding to the 2 million-plus who since its 1991 debut in Toronto have flocked to an event Arizona club president Derrick Hall likens to "Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory" for baseball lovers.
While baseball's past is a featured highlight of FanFest (numerous Hall of Famers are on the autograph-opportunity roster), the game's future will be in full-scale dress rehearsal at Sunday's Futures Game.The game itself starts at 6 p.m. ET, but the main attraction, really, begins a couple hours before that. This is one pregame fielding and batting practice fans don't want to miss, a chance to see on display the skills of 50 young players on the fast track to the Majors. Divided into 25-man United States and World rosters, and managed respectively by Mike Piazza and hometown hero Luis Gonzalez, the game will feature blue-chip prospects from 14 different states (California leads with six) and 12 foreign lands (Dominican Republic, eight). This is a relatively new and prestigious event which since 1999 has showcased no fewer than 82 players who went on to become main-stage All-Stars. After the game has been played and the hardware distributed -- Hank Conger, now catching for the Angels, was selected Most Valuable Player of the U.S.'s 9-1 win last summer in Anaheim -- the Futures stars still making their names will turn over Chase Field to a mix of name-and-fame. The power alleys will get smaller and the ball will get bigger. The Legends-Celebrity Softball Game will have plenty of both, and will be cued by the only true hyphenate on the field: Former Yankees great, five-time All-Star and Grammy nominee Bernie Williams, the outfielder-slash-guitarist who will render the National Anthem. Past MLB stars scheduled to participate include Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Rollie Fingers, Rickey Henderson and Ozzie Smith and former All-Stars Fred Lynn, Steve Garvey and Bernie Williams, Mark Grace, Piazza and Gonzalez. The list of celebrities includes U.S. National Soccer Team captain Carlos Bocanegra, Nick Jonas, ESPN broadcaster Erin Andrews, James Denton, Jennie Finch, Larry Fitzgerald, Tom Papa, Jordin Sparks and Kate Upton. Monday's pre-Workout highlight will be Commissioner Bud Selig's annual chat with fans, beginning at 1 p.m. ET at FanFest and streamed live on MLB.com. The climax and nationally televised highlight of Monday's Workout Day again will have eight sluggers putting serious swings on BP pitches. But this will be a Home Run Derby with a twist -- four of them, actually. There are league captains, Prince Fielder of the National League and David Ortiz of the American, who hand-selected their crews. Which means we must also have NL vs. AL competition. Done: Fielder, Brewers teammate Rickie Weeks, St. Louis' Matt Holliday and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp will swing against Ortiz, Boston pal Adrian Gonzalez, Toronto's Jose Bautista and the Yankees' Robinson Cano. Tale of the tape measure: The AL quartet entered Saturday's play with an aggregate total of 80 homers to 75 for the NL foursome. The individual Derby champ will be determined as in the past, through three rounds of bracket competition, but all home runs hit will be totaled to pick the winning league. The fourth twist? Ahh: Those valuable Gold Balls, put in service for each contestant's final out and worth $18,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America when sent yard, will truly be gilded this time. One leather panel of each special ball has been laced with actual 24-karat gold leather crafted by Rawlings and Gold Sport Collectibles. Ball hawk alert: That makes each ball worth $150 retail, so if you've got seats in the outfield, bring your Gold Gloves. The figurative red carpet rolled out by Phoenix for baseball and its fans becomes literal -- and 1,750-feet long -- as the countdown to the All-Star first pitch begins Tuesday at noon local time at the downtown corner of First and Jefferson Streets. With Luis Gonzalez, the ubiquitous Ambassador of this Midsummer Classic, serving as its Grand Marshall, the parade to Chase Field will shine the spotlight -- not to mention the midday Arizona sun -- on all the All-Stars riding in and waving from Chevrolet Silverados. Can't get to the parade route? No problem: MLB Network will air the procession beginning at 4 p.m. ET. When everyone moves into the air-conditioned comfort of Chase Field, they'll settle back for a cornucopia of acts and athletics. Sparks, the former "American Idol" winner, will deliver the national anthem, fresh off her Fourth of July performance at the White House. Grammy winner Michelle Branch will sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. After the playbill, it will be time to play ball. The partisan hometown crowd will root hard for the National League, a 3-1 winner last year, to make it consecutive All-Star Game victories for the first time since 1994-95. There could be a lot at stake for their Arizona Diamondbacks, a surprising and strong contender in the NL West. Should Kirk Gibson's gang make good on the promise and storm all the way to the World Series, it could sure use that extra home game: In 2001, the D-backs won all four inside Bank One Ballpark (Chase Field's former name) to dethrone the Yankees. Like everyone else the next three days, they'll be wishing on an All-Star.