CHICAGO, JULY 9 -- Once a year in baseball, the play is the thing.
When the game's principal actors move on stage for the 61st All-Star Game -- a Midsummer Night's Classic, if you will -- subplots take precedence over the main one. The game will be decided Tuesday night at Wrigley Field amid the possible resolution of more intriguing conflicts than American League vs. National League.
The delightful possibilities include Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Gregg William Olson facing Atlanta Braves catcher Greg William Olson; San Diego Padres second baseman Roberto Alomar Jr. trying to steal against his brother, Cleveland Indians catcher Sandy Alomar; Oakland Athletics outfielder Jose "Jerk" Canseco being held on base by San Francisco Giants first baseman Will "Three-Toed Sloth" Clark.
"It's a showcase," said Canseco, who claimed he and Clark resolved their war of words today at the pregame workouts. "It's a group of the world's greatest players gathered in one arena. We come to have fun -- win or lose, home run or no home run."
But, for the record, Canseco said: "I hope it will be an offensive game. I hate those boring pitchers' duels. I don't think the fans come to watch the pitchers.
"They come to see 400-foot shots."
The AL has won the last two games, three of four and four of seven. Prior to that, of course, the NL had won 11 straight and 19 of 20. Asked what the NL has to do to keep the AL from its first three-game winning streak since it won four straight from 1946 to '49, New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry replied: "We just have to go out and pound them."
Bob Welch of the Athletics will be the starting pitcher for the Americans, Jack Armstrong of the Cincinnati Reds for the Nationals.
AL Manager Tony La Russa of Oakland did not indicate how long Welch would pitch or who would follow him. NL Manager Roger Craig of the Giants said Armstrong would go two or three innings, then probably be replaced by New York Mets left-hander Frank Viola or Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Ramon Martinez.
Because the game is being played at a National League park, the designated hitter will not be used.
Welch, 13-3 this season with a 2.91 earned run average, is making his second all-star appearance. Then a member of the Dodgers, he pitched three innings of relief for the NL in the 1980 game and allowed two runs on five hits and one walk. He struck out four.
Armstrong, 11-3 with a 2.28 ERA, is one of 18 players (12 from the NL) making their all-star debuts. The 25-year-old is in his first full major league season. He showed his youth during a morning news conference at which Craig made some brief remarks about wanting to win, then formally introduced Armstrong as his starting pitcher.
Said Armstrong: "Like Mr. Craig said, we're not here to enjoy ourselves -- although this is kind of intriguing. We're here to win the game."
Armstrong might benefit from a special scouting report on the AL's fifth batter, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. Among Armstrong's teammates on the Reds is Ken Griffey Sr.
But before Armstrong gets to the younger Griffey, he will have to get past the Nos. 1 and 2 batters, Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson and Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs.
In last year's game, Boggs was preceded at the top of the AL order by Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson. He and Boggs hit homers in the first inning against the Giants' Rick Reuschel.
"They should have let me be in the home run derby," Henderson said after watching Canseco, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Cecil Fielder lose today's interleague home run-hitting contest to the Nationals, 4-1. "It's a good hitting background. There's a lot of green out there."
Wrigley Field's ivy-covered outfield walls are in full bloom and the place has been spruced up by $5 million worth of improvements that include new restrooms, a new roof and an enlarged visitors' clubhouse. And, of course, there are the park's relatively new lights. They made it possible for the game -- now a prime-time only affair -- to be played here.
Playing here is a factor not lost on San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who will be a reserve after appearing as a starter four times.
"To come to a park like Wrigley," he said, "I mean, all the greats played here."
The park lends itself to some important questions. For example: If an AL player homers into the outfield bleachers, will a fan throw the ball back as Cubs fans do on opposing player's homers? "They might," said Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett, a native of Chicago's South Side. "They've got the mentality." Will the Friendly Confines be a hitter's heaven or a pitcher's paradise? "You'll have to check with the weatherman," said the Dodgers' Mike Scioscia, who will replace injured Benito Santiago as the NL's starting catcher. "If the wind's not blowing in, some of these guys are so strong a ball that's not well-hit can be a home run here."
Baltimore Orioles shorstop Cal Ripken will start for the AL and bat fourth -- the closest to the top of the order he will have batted in weeks. "You watch, he's going to make me look bad," said Orioles Manager and AL coach Frank Robinson, who dropped Ripken to sixth in an attempt to shake him from a protracted hitting slump.
Already working streaks for consecutive games played and games without an error, Ripken will be making his eighth consecutive all-star appearance and seventh consecutive start. Both of those are the longest current streaks in the American League.