CHICAGO -- Unfortunately, this week's all-star gala ended in a mood of all-star grouch. The American and National leagues played a game that made the stupefying World Cup exciting by comparison. Is America ready for soccer in 1994? Why not. Drab baseball can be just as dull.

When the wind blows in at 20 mph at Wrigley Field, it's 1910 all over again with Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown -- no relation to Will "Three-Toed" Clark -- dueling Christy Mathewson for an eternity of scoreless innings.

Group F never got flatter than this one. During a 69-minute rain delay with the score 0-0 in the seventh inning, perhaps half the crowd left Wrigley. Those who stayed made mordant jokes about staging a shootout or awarding the victory to the American League on time of possession.

Too bad this classic will be remembered for rain, wind and one ill-considered 0-2 serve from Rob Dibble to Julio Franco. In the locker rooms, around the batting cages and in hotel lobbies, this was an all-star celebration that radiated good-news stories. Especially smiling tales about Ryne Sandberg, Cecil Fielder and Darryl Strawberry.

Sandberg, now in his ninth full season and headed for the Hall of Fame, has been a cult player among big-leaguers since his MVP season in 1984. He's also been an American secret, at least for a player Whitey Herzog has called "the best I have ever seen" and countless baseball people refer to as the player closest to perfection at what he does.

Since the 1989 All-Star Game, Sandberg, never thought of as a slugger, has hit 43 home runs. This year, with 24, he's on a pace to break the record for second basemen -- 43 by Rogers Hornsby and Davey Johnson. He's completed a streak of 123 errorless games at second base -- the longest by any infielder, except a first baseman. As an added fillip, Sandberg might win the 1990 triple crown.

Such facts will get you noticed. Even if you are Sandberg, who may be the most silent star in baseball.

"I can't explain why I don't talk very much," said this son of a Spokane mortician. "I have two brothers and a sister and they talk all the time." Then, Sandberg clammed up.

"He's only 31 {come September}," said Cubs Manager Don Zimmer, "and he's getting better."

Sandberg got the All-Star Game's biggest ovations and, for a long time to come, should hear many more of them.

Perhaps the most remarkable story of the 1990 season has been Cecil Fielder, the first player to go to Japan so he could come back to America to be a star. He's the only Japanese import welcome in Detroit.

"Usually, old guys go to Japan because they can't bear to hang 'em up," said Tigers teammate Alan Trammell. "Cecil went there {at 25} to get a chance to prove how good he really was. He may have opened some eyes among young players."

After most of five seasons in the minors, and parts of four seasons with Toronto, Fielder was fed up. Tagged a platoon player in a talent-rich organization, he showed a self-confidence almost unique in baseball history. He expatriated himself, became a Hanshin Tiger and hit 38 home runs in 106 games.

Along the way, he learned how to hit.

"He's totally different," said Orioles Manager Frank Robinson. "He used to chase bad off-speed breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs up and in. Now he handles more types of pitches and he not only hits the ball out off the plate hard, but he hits it out of the park."

"In Japan," explained Trammell, "they don't want the Americans to beat them. It's a matter of pride. So they pitch around the good ones. Cecil had to learn to use the whole field and be patient, because he wasn't going to get many good pitches to drive {to left field}."

Fielder, as would be appropriate to a fellow so brash, just thinks he needed to play every day, relax and show his gifts. "It's tough for a platoon player to be patient when you know you have to do it now," he said. "If you get only eight or ten at-bats a week, that's really pressure because if you don't do well, it could be less the next week.

"When you play regularly, you let things happen."

Then Fielder added: "I'm tickled pink to be in this All-Star Game. The people who didn't think I could play the game -- they can't take this from me."

Nor his majors-leading 28 homers and 75 RBI.

Perhaps the most changed, and touching, figure here was Strawberry, the much booed, much pressured, too outspoken New York Met. Over his first seven seasons, the pressure of being called "the next Ted Williams" got to The Straw Man. He tried to make up in swagger, hard living and off-field style what he lacked in right field and at the plate, where his streaky bat produced a .260 career average.

This past offseason, he checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center. Since then he has lived an almost monastic life, by all accounts, devoting road trips almost entirely to sleeping, ordering room service and coming to the ballpark five hours early to avoid temptations and do extra work. "I'm saving my life," he said.

On the wall of the locker room near Strawberry was a large framed photo of ex-Cub Hack Wilson, who holds the NL record of 56 home runs, but who died at 48 of chronic alcoholism. Under Wilson's picture were some of his last words, from a radio interview just before he died. Old-fashioned corny stuff. Still painfully true.

"Talent isn't enough. You need common sense and good advice. If anyone tries to tell you different, tell 'em the story of Hack Wilson.

"I was quite a guy in those days . . . . I had a lot of natural talent . . . but I sure lacked a lot of other things like humility. . . . Hack Wilson knew everything.

"It didn't catch up with me for a while. People let me have my own way. They needed my hits. I was a big shot. . . . Then things started to change.

"I was at the top . . . in 1930 I won the MVP. . . . I started to drink heavily. . . . When spring training rolled around {in 1931} I was 20 pounds overweight. I couldn't stop drinking. I couldn't hit. That year most experts figured I'd break Ruth's record. But I ended up hitting only 13 homers.

"I was suspended . . . I drank more . . . I got booted from one club to another. I worked at odd jobs. Spent all of my money. Finally, I got sick. While I was recuperating in that hospital, I had a lot of time to think.

"There are kids in and out of baseball who think because they have talent they have the world by the tail. It isn't so. . . . Don't be too big to accept advice. Be considerate of others. That's the only way to live."

Baseball often thinks it's bad news that so many players have confessed so many alcohol and drug problems in recent years. An embarrassment to the game, it's called.

"It was always there," said Frank Robinson. "But it was the one sacred secret."

Tuesday night, Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley and Dennis Martinez -- all recovering from drinking problems, like Strawberry -- pitched shutout ball. Dave Parker, whose problem was drugs, sat on the AL bench, present by virtue of his .315 average. He's now viewed by most as a respected leader within the game.

Maybe one more piece of good news at this bad-news All-Star Game was that while baseball's problems never change, sometimes people learn how to face them sooner and better.