SAN FRANCISCO – This All-Star Game was worth the 23-year wait.

Scott Bell
Willie Mays throwing baseballs to the fans in San Francisco was one of the many memorable moments of the Midsummer Classic. (AP PHOTO)

For much of the day, it felt like the much-hyped yet relaxed event it usually is. But in the ninth inning, it suddenly became a game.

After eight seasons as a partial Giants season ticket holder, I know what it feels like when the entire park gets on edge, sensing either a comeback or a disastrous blowup. And last Tuesday night, the packed house reached the same manic pitch as it does in the regular season.

National League fans of all stripes banded together, screaming for American League blood as the Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano blasted a pitch from Michigan alum and Seattle closer J.J. Putz into the jammed right-field promenade. Junior circuit aficionados – including the largest contingent of Tigers fans outside of Detroit I’ ever seen – abruptly realized their league’s longtime domination was in serious jeopardy.

“I wonder what those crazy people who left early are thinking now!” yelled Andre Lopez, a fellow Giants regular, an unmistakable note of glee undercutting his agonized shouts to the National League batters.

Even though the “hometown” National Leaguers eventually fell (with Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard still riding the pine), the jolt that had gripped San Francisco for a week remained.

It had been clear in the smiles all around FanFest – really, who can help smiling when she’s watching Billy and Cal Ripken needle each other mercilessly like two 9-year-olds? Outside the ballpark, people grabbed wandering mascots in enthusiastic hugs and yelled greetings to strangers wearing the same team colors.

Inside, Pudge Rodriguez’s son, Dereck, melted the hearts of the early-arriving crowd as he babysat Victor Martinez’s tiny son.

Barry Bonds basked in the kind of sustained, loving ovation he can enjoy nowhere else in the country.

And Giants hero Willie Mays was honored in a touching ceremony. A huge green sheet fell away from a gigantic blowup in center field of Mays making “The Catch” at the Polo Ground as Mays entered through a double row of All-Stars. His godson, Bonds, helped him into a 1958 Cadillac, and he circled the field slowly to thunderous cheers, tossing baseballs to the adoring crowd.

Then came the game, which was highlighted by Ichiro’s inside-the-park homer. Regulars to 24 Willie Mays Plaza expected a triple – after all, he’d hit the ball to the part of the yard known to all as “Triples Alley.” But the swift Mariner hit third, and showed no sign of slowing, scoring well ahead of the futile throw.

No matter how many times Bud Selig says “This one counts,” it’s not up to him. He can’t force it to be true.

But last Tuesday in San Francisco, as the fans exulted in an inarguably superior game, it was.

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