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BASEBALL EXTRA | BASEBALL

Time to Chime in With All-Star Evaluations

June 29, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

The question approaching the All-Star break is: How closely have fans been paying attention?

Time now for the annual analysis.

Time to check out the All-Star tabulations--the popularity contest that is the fans' vote--measured against likely starting lineups if first-half performance was the true criteria.

First, however, a word about that fan favorite, Albert Belle.

With voting having ended this week, the Chicago White Sox left fielder ranked eighth among American League outfielders in most-recent tabulations for the July 8 game in Cleveland, Belle's former asylum.

In American League outfield voting, the fans seem to be right on as to the three justifiable starters: Ken Griffey Jr., David Justice and Brady Anderson.

Although Griffey has a hamstring strain that is not expected to prevent his appearance in Cleveland, Justice, who replaced Belle as the Indians' left fielder, is on the disabled list because of an elbow injury and is not eligible to come off until the day before the game.

He might play, of course, but there is intriguing speculation either way.

Belle's power numbers put him among several outfielders, including the Angels' Jim Edmonds, who are candidates for a backup role--or possible starter if Justice is out.

Belle is fourth in the league in runs batted in, but his behavioral baggage seems to leave league officials, who select the overall roster in conjunction with the team manager, in an awkward and potentially embarrassing fix.

The AL team will be managed by Joe Torre of New York. Mike Hargrove, Belle's former Cleveland manager, will be one of the coaches. Hargrove has slept more easily since Belle left the Indians' clubhouse--taking that offensive talent and temperament with him. Would Hargrove lobby for Belle? Would league officials, in preparing for a spotlight event, risk a repeat of Belle's recent return to Cleveland, when he drew a $5,000 fine for making an obscene gesture at hooting fans?

The league, might not have a choice.

Belle might have to be the White Sox representative (each team must have one), depending on how many first basemen the AL carries.

The fans' selection of Tino Martinez as the first base starter and the almost mandatory addition of Mark McGwire as a reserve could jeopardize the appointment of AL batting leader Frank Thomas, who would be the White Sox's most viable alternative, unless closer Roberto Hernandez or starting pitcher Jaime Navarro is chosen.

Phyllis Merhige, AL vice president, said Belle's recent incident in Cleveland hasn't been discussed in relation to his possible All-Star selection and doubted it would be a factor.

"We're hopeful Justice can play, but we have a long list of potential outfield starters [and/or reserves]," she said.

An injured player elected by the fans can still attend the game and participate in team events if he chooses.

"It's not as dicey as it is when the manager chooses a player who then may or may not be able to play," Merhige said, referring to a scenario in which a replacement for the reserve would have to be flown in at the last minute.

In addition to Justice, two other probable fan choices--Atlanta's Kenny Lofton and Cincinnati's Barry Larkin--are on the disabled list and doubtful for the game.

A closer look at the fan vote:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

First base: No arguing with Martinez, whose thunderous half has pushed Don Mattingly deeper into the memory bank.

Second base: Roberto Alomar was too much of an automatic choice. Joey Cora has had the better half.

Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez, the fans' choice, will dominate this position in these annual elections as Cal Ripken Jr. did, and well he should.

Third base: Ripken is even more of an automatic pick at third than he would have been at shortstop. Competition isn't as deep, which doesn't mean Ripken isn't deserving.

Catcher: Fans gave Ivan Rodriguez a slight lead over Sandy Alomar Jr. before the final week of voting. Both produced the finest offensive halves of their careers. Either is a bona-fide choice.

Outfield: Selection of Griffey, Justice and Anderson is legit. Two who deserve to be there: Edmonds and Rusty Greer.

Designated hitter: Only one real choice here and the electorate made it: Edgar Martinez.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

First base: Jeff Bagwell and Andres Galarraga are difficult to separate. Both are having banner seasons in every category. Fans give Bagwell the edge. Choice here is Galarraga.

Second base: An equally difficult choice between Craig Biggio, the fan leader, and Jeff Kent, only sixth in the voting. Different type players who can't be judged solely on statistics. A narrow nod here to Kent, stemming from his impact on the San Francisco Giants and their surprising lead in the West.

Shortstop: Larkin's leg injury will prevent his appearance. Jeff Blauser should have been the choice anyway.

Third base: Fans continue to honor Ken Caminiti for 1996, but Chipper Jones is the man in '97.

Catcher: Mike Piazza is the obvious choice in any culture.

Outfielders: Lofton, Larry Walker and Barry Bonds are the fans' top three. Tony Gwynn, who is fourth in the voting and should have been ahead of Bonds, will undoubtedly start if Lofton can't. Otherwise, not bad.

CONSENSUS

With only a few refinements, fans did fine, proving that they were paying attention for the most part.

Complete squads will be announced over the next several days. It's up to the managers and league officials to complete the rosters. The process could be described as a Belle wringer.

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