Abreu gets his shot on national stage
Slugger wins Home Run Derby, will lead off All-Star Game
DETROIT -- Tony La Russa's lineup wasn't etched in stone. So the All-Star manager could always alter it if he saw a compelling argument Monday night.As is, the National League's leadoff hitter in Tuesday night's All-Star Game will be the newly-crowned CENTURY 21 Home Run Derby champion. Bobby Abreu, the big run producer in the middle of the Phillies' lineup, is La Russa's choice to take the first swings in the 76th annual Midsummer Classic. While Philadelphia's normal leadoff man, Jimmy Rollins, watches from the NL bench, Abreu will face Chicago White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle to try to ignite an end to American League domination of this game. "With the talent here, you can't make a bad lineup, but I just liked Abreu on top," La Russa said. "He hits hard, runs well, has a good strike zone ... I'm trying to get some damage early." Still, La Russa's decision surprised most people, but not his managerial adversary. Terry Francona saw this coming six years ago, when he managed the Phillies and tried to harness the emerging Abreu's many talents. "I called him into my office -- while we were in St. Louis, as a matter of fact -- and I told him, 'If you led off, you'd be the best player in baseball,'" Francona recalled. "He's that type of a player." Abreu smiled in recalling that episode, when he simply did not want any part of it. "He gave me the option but, at that time, I was batting third," Abreu said. "I'd been batting third my whole career. And I didn't really want to change." But six years later, things are dramatically changed for the 6-foot, 210-pound fire hydrant from Venezuela. The world has discovered him, not only voting him into his first All-Star start, but with the second highest total of all NL outfielders. With closer Billy Wagner also aboard, the 45-44 Phillies are better represented here than any other team dancing around the .500 mark. But there is little doubt who leads the contingent. "We got here," said Rollins, who, like Wagner, is a replacement for a player who had to bow out, "but I'm not putting myself in front of Bobby. He's the true representative. He's the one fans voted in. "I'm glad to accompany him. It's good to share this with people you are around every day." Abreu became a regular in 1998, Francona's second of four years at the Phillies' helm. The following season, Abreu had the first in a historic streak of 20-20 seasons. He is only two homers shy of making it seven straight years with 20 homers and 20 steals; only Bobby and Barry Bonds and Willie Mays had even as many as six in a row. "He's been one of the top players for years," Francona said. "It took him doing something extraordinary early in the season (nine homers in a 10-game mid-May span) to get the nation on board with that." Abreu is grateful for the people who have recognized him, and feels indebted to them. "When you work hard every year and never give up and try to be consistent, people start to realize you have an opportunity to be an All-Star," he said. "They care more for my career and have followed me, and I say 'Thank you' to the fans for bringing me here." Rollins was glad to be able to come to his third All-Star Game with a clear mind. He had planned to spend the three-day break checking on Hurricane Dennis damage to his Tampa, Fla., townhouse, but any sense of conflict was eased when the storm veered inland from the Florida coast. "I'm sure I got affected a little, but other people got it worse," said Rollins, whose mood here is also lifted by the way the Phillies wrapped first-half play, taking two of three from the NL East-leading Nationals. Could that, and triple All-Star representation, be a harbinger of a strong second half? "I hope so," Rollins said. "Our goal was to take two from the Nationals and make up one game. You can only make up one game at a time." Wagner thinks the Phillies have it in them to make up all of the 7 1/2 games that still separate them from Washington. He keeps attributing his now-infamous vent of a couple of weeks ago -- when he said the Phillies "haven't got a chance" the way they were playing -- to wanting to spur his teammates to fulfill their potential. "Definitely, consistency-wise, we can be a lot better," said the lefty. "When you're struggling, it's hard to say some of the things I've said. "I just feel like, when you go to the ballpark as a team, you should be able to say something meant to try to help you, to make you better, without holding back. You should be able to take it. That's how I came up in Houston -- guys saying things not to make you feel bad, but because they want more out of you, and that's the way it was taken. "Now in Philly ... A lot of guys worry about the media and press and what people say about them, and I could care less." The last 73 games could fulfill expectations. Three All-Stars say the same thing Wagner does: This is better than a .500 club, and the best may be yet to come.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.