-- Shortly after 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners will step into the batter's box at Minute Maid Park to lead off the 75th All-Star Game. And he will be almost invisible. Behind the plate, Mike Piazza of the New York Mets will put down a finger (ubiquitous joke this week: Which finger will it be?), and Roger Clemens of the Houston Astros will rear back and throw as hard as he can, directly at Piazza's chest.
Perhaps never before has one pitch been so anticipated and so hyped as the one Clemens, the National League's starting pitcher, will throw to open this All-Star Game -- in his home town, in his home stadium, in the middle of his 21st major league season.
Fate and a bit of nostalgia conspired to put Clemens and Piazza in the position of being uneasy batterymates, nearly four years after they became entangled in a blood feud that would probably still be going, had they not been asked to put it on hold for this night.
In Game 2 of the 2000 World Series between Piazza's New York Mets and Clemens's New York Yankees, Piazza broke his bat on a Clemens fastball, the barrel end winding up skidding to Clemens's feet, whereupon Clemens picked up the shard and fired it in the direction of Piazza.
Since it came three months after Clemens had beaned Piazza on the helmet with a fastball, heightening tensions between the players and their teams, it was assumed Clemens's bat-flinging carried an angry message. Piazza thought so. So did the commissioner's office, which fined Clemens $50,000.
In the years since, the combatants have had little reason to rehash the confrontation -- their occasional meetings as opposing players passing without incident -- until now.
This month, Piazza was voted by fans as the NL's starting catcher (even though he has become primarily a first baseman), while Clemens, who will turn 42 next month, was given the honor of starting the game -- over arguably more deserving pitchers -- as a nod to his immense career achievements and his status as hometown hero.
In a news conference Monday morning, Clemens brushed off a question about his upcoming encounter with Piazza.
"I'm pitching with him now; we are on the same team, so it's not a story," he said. "As far as Mike and I are concerned, I've said many times, I'm looking forward to it. I'm glad I get to throw it to him, and I don't have to face him -- because I know what type of hitter he is."
Asked if he planned to interact with Piazza before Tuesday's first pitch, he said, "I'm sure we'll go over the first handful of hitters."
Later in the afternoon, Piazza sounded as if there were still unresolved feelings of animosity. After first saying he was "flattered" by Clemens's praise, Piazza stammered when asked if there was lingering bitterness.
"Well, um, I can't -- I'm not really thinking about it," he said. "I'm living for the day and enjoying this moment. Nothing should take away from this moment. . . . We're just going to go out and do our jobs. And if something comes of it, fine. There really isn't any blueprint coming into this weekend. If there's a need for [talking beforehand], fine. If not, no big deal."
This situation could have been avoided if someone other than Clemens -- perhaps San Francisco's Jason Schmidt or Arizona's Randy Johnson -- were given the honor of being the NL's starting pitcher. However, once Clemens started the season with nine straight wins, it became almost a foregone conclusion that he would get the ball in Minute Maid Park's first all-star game.
It is a moment that never seemed possible when Clemens, then a Yankee, walked off the mound at Miami's Pro Player Stadium in Game 4 of the World Series, doffing his cap as he soaked in the applause and camera flashes all over the stadium. Having previously announced his retirement, Clemens presumably had just thrown his last pitch.
However, that night after the game Clemens said he was "99.9 percent sure" he was retiring. But the Astros lured him out of retirement a month later, and on Tuesday night, the nation will witness the rationale for that other .1 percent.
In many ways, the entire all-star week is merely an excuse to celebrate Clemens and his remarkable career, which includes a record 6 Cy Young Awards, 320 wins and 4,220 strikeouts. This is Clemens's week, as even Piazza acknowledged.
"Obviously, it's a great opportunity for him, pitching in his home state," Piazza said. "I'm happy to be a part of it. . . . He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Clemens was even the star of Sunday's All-Star FanFest at the convention center near the stadium -- giving an hour-long children's clinic -- although his team was wrapping up the first half of its season at that time in Los Angeles, losing to the Dodgers to fall to .500 (44-44) for the first time since April 11, while remaining 101/2 games out of first place.
Such an appearance was made possible by the unique arrangement in Clemens's contract, which permits him to remain home while the Astros are on the road, and fly in for his starts. It is an arrangement that is believed to be unprecedented, but one the Astros were willing to make for a player who routinely sells out the stadium on days he starts.
This is Clemens's week, and this is Clemens's town, and when he takes the mound Tuesday night, a crowd of about 41,000 -- many of them fellow Texans -- will rise to their feet and salute him. And behind the plate, Piazza will put his index finger down, raise his catcher's mitt and wait for the impact of the fastball.