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All-Star story lines abound

In the non-Cubs, non-Red Sox edition of the festivities – and with the two storied teams accounting for nearly a quarter of the players in this year's All-Star Game, it's a limited field – Major League Baseball still managed to pack its rosters with a fair share of story lines.

We've got the dope fiend gone sober and fighting for a Triple Crown, the alleged steroid user under federal investigation for perjury, the hitter flirting hot and heavy with .400 and, of course, the guy who may or may not be visiting Madonna in the dead of night, and who happened to get more votes than anyone, with Madge perhaps punching a ballot or two herself.

And then, when adding Chicago and Boston to the mix, we see the first rookie catcher ever to start an All-Star Game for the National League, the hothead who goes all Michael Douglas-in-"Falling Down" on the dugout after every out, the dreadlocked space case who recently hit his 500th home run and shoved a sexagenarian to the ground – separate incidents – and, of course, the annual oxymoron who made a team of stars by hitting .219.

So, yes, there are Josh Hamilton (former drug addict), Miguel Tejada (alleged juicer), Chipper Jones (flirt) and Alex Rodriguez (needs lesson in keeping things on the down low), and there are Geovany Soto (rookie), Kevin Youkilis (nut), Manny Ramirez (loon) and Jason Varitek (needs lesson in … hitting), and there are also all the usual accompaniments to the All-Star roster announcements: flubs and snubs, decisions that beget derision and everyone trying, as they do on an annual basis, to actually act like they enjoy home-field advantage in the World Series going to the winner of an exhibition game.

Hey, if it turns into Cubs vs. Red Sox by the sixth inning, it may be a preview.

The Red Sox, remember, are in second place in the American League East, trailing the Tampa Bay Rays, who wound up with only two selections, pitcher Scott Kazmir and catcher Dioner Navarro. The other two division leaders in the AL, Los Angeles and Chicago, combined for five players. Which brings the grand total of division leaders' All-Stars to the same number as the Red Sox.

Despite the whiff of impropriety, what with Boston's Terry Francona managing the AL team, rest assured he had nothing to do with it. In fact, Francona passed over borderline Boston candidates Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. All seven of the Red Sox elected came by fans (Youkilis, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Ramirez and designated hitter David Ortiz) or the players (Varitek, outfielder J.D. Drew and reliever Jonathan Papelbon).

For the most part, the fans did their part. Selecting Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome was a bit of a stretch, though seeing two Japanese players – Ichiro Suzuki will start for the AL – roaming in the same center field once patrolled by Mickey Mantle illustrates how the game has evolved.

The players did well too. They loaded the AL team with three more deserving Texas Rangers (second baseman Ian Kinsler, shortstop Michael Young and DH Milton Bradley) and the correct three outfielders (Grady Sizemore, Carlos Quentin and Drew). They got it right in the NL as well, the lone questionable choice San Francisco closer Brian Wilson, who leads the league in saves despite an inflated ERA.

Other borderline choices from the managers were Washington shortstop Cristian Guzman, Baltimore closer George Sherrill and Detroit utilityman Carlos Guillen. All of whom were easily defendable: Guzman leads the NL in hits, Sherrill ranks second in baseball in saves and Guillen's versatility is valuable on a team without much.

Oh, there are more stories to cover, and each will be, ad nauseam, over the next 10 days. The explosion of young talent is obvious in the 25 first-time All-Stars, and even more so when contrasted with the number of players who have been named to the team more than 10 times: two, Rodriguez and Ramirez.

Injured players need replacing, and some of the bigger snubs – Pat Burrell, Johan Santana, Jermaine Dye, Rich Harden, John Lackey – might get in anyway. It was sad watching Ken Griffey Jr. get passed by Ryan Braun in the last week of voting, and maybe he'll get in, too. He would bring such an iconic presence to the Home Run Derby, at the very least.

Others have the chance in the last-man vote. In the AL: Dye, Jason Giambi, Jose Guillen, Brian Roberts and rookie Evan Longoria. The NL: Burrell, Corey Hart, Carlos Lee, Aaron Rowand and David Wright, who has a chance to bring the Mets' total All-Stars to … two.

No matter which players made or missed the cut, the star of the week will be Yankee Stadium. The old relic is headed to the glue factory after this season, and if the standings don't shift, this will be the last great event held there. Baseball is going all out, bringing in 40 Hall of Famers and trying to put on the mother of all pregame ceremonies. It's a nice tribute, well-deserved, good-ol' New York schmaltz.

The place will be packed to the rafters July 15, and all 64 players will applaud politely, and the fans will love seeing it: the past sharing the field with the present, the spectacle that remains the All-Star Game and, yeah, maybe even Madonna sitting in A-Rod's box seats one more time.

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