Players reflect on the baseball cathedral in the Bronx

NEW YORK -- Ian Kinsler, All-Star second baseman for the Texas Rangers, was 6 or 7 years old when he got his first glimpse of Yankee Stadium. The experience literally took his breath away.

"I had a huge asthma attack during the game," Kinsler said Monday. "It was awesome. I had to go to the hospital and everything."

Scott Kazmir was 20 years old and a Tampa Bay rookie in his Yankee Stadium debut in 2004, and the circumstances were almost as stressful. He came on in relief of teammate Dewon Brazelton with the bases loaded, no outs and Gary Sheffield standing in the batter's box, and lived to tell about it.

As quaint as those stories might be, you could search for weeks and not find a ballplayer with a better Bronx tale than Phillies closer Brad Lidge. The first time he set foot in Yankee Stadium, in June 2003, Lidge combined with five other Houston pitchers to throw a no-hitter in an 8-0 Astros victory.

One minute Lidge was gazing at the scenery with a sense of exhilaration and wonder. A few hours later, he was in the visiting clubhouse celebrating with Kirk Saarloos, Billy Wagner and his other bullpen buddies over a few bottles of champagne.

"We thought George Steinbrenner sent it over," Lidge said. "Then somebody asked him about it and he said, 'Are you crazy? I'd never do that.'"

Every All-Star Game has an overriding theme, and we've run the gamut in recent years. Maybe the focus is on the steroid craze, American League dominance, the Latin-American talent infusion or Major League Baseball's efforts to inject some life into the proceedings with its "This One Counts" initiative. Last year, everyone was wistful over the prospect of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. taking their final All-Star bows in tandem.

This July, the star of the game is an inanimate object -- a blend of memories wrapped in concrete inside a patch of land adjacent to the Harlem River. The House that Ruth Built has lost a lot of its charm during the aging process. But judging from the reverence thrown its way this week, the place certainly hasn't lost its relevance.

Yankee Stadium, a living baseball museum in the Bronx, will be replaced next April by a $1.3 billion Taj Mahal across the street. While that's wonderful news for suite holders and people who prefer wide concourses and avant-garde concessions, it has evoked a sense of sadness in baseball fans who cling to the ghosts of Mickey, the Babe and Joltin' Joe.

Some of those fans even carry gloves and wear spikes.

"I know the buzz from all the players, and most guys really wanted to get healthy and not miss this game," said Twins closer Joe Nathan. "It's always an honor to go to the All-Star Game, but this one is going to have a little more meaning to it."

It would be an understatement to call the 79th All-Star Game an extravaganza-in-waiting. With unprecedented buildup and more than 40 Hall of Famers in attendance, we're likely to see the most poignant pregame ceremony since 1999, when Ted Williams came onto the field in a golf cart at Fenway Park.

With a few exceptions, the players seem to grasp the magnitude of the event. The first-timers were anxious to check out Yankee Stadium's nooks and crannies and create a few new memories. The players who've passed through here before already have anecdotes to spare.

Chipper Jones' most vivid recollections are of 1996, when Atlanta coughed up a two-game lead to lose the World Series to the Yankees. One minute the Braves were going home with a swagger and a chance to close it out at Fulton County Stadium. Four games later, a jubilant Wade Boggs was celebrating on the back end of a police horse.

In the 12 years since, Jones has made only the occasional foray to the Bronx in interleague play. But his career 14 games and 66 plate appearances at Yankee Stadium drummed home one immutable point: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

"If you can be successful on this stage, you're respected throughout the game," Jones said. "With all the banners here, you pretty much know the road to the World Series is going to come through this place eventually. If you can stand toe-to-toe with the beast and conquer this stage, then you've reached the apex."

As Jones talked to reporters during Monday's media session, his father, Larry Sr., sat quietly nearby. Mickey Mantle was always Larry's favorite player, so Chipper planned to take his dad out to center field and snap a few pictures beside the Mantle monument.

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"He's jacked up," Jones said. "He's ready to go."

Few players are more in tune with the emotional resonance of the place than Nathan. He grew up a Mets fan in Middletown, N.Y. But Yankee Stadium was a convenient one-hour drive from home, so his family made a lot more sojourns to the Bronx than Queens. Nathan would invariably light up when he walked through the tunnel and saw Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly and the other Yankees going through their pregame routines.

"The thing I always paid attention to was guys throwing the baseball," Nathan said. "It just looked so easy and effortless for them. For some of us players, I think it's going to bring back that special feeling like we're 12 years old all over again."

Of course, Yankee Stadium hasn't seemed quite so daunting to visitors since Joe Torre managed the team to four titles from 1996 through 2000. The last World Series game here came in October 2003, and ended with Florida's Josh Beckett tagging out Jorge Posada on a harmless ground ball up the first base line.

The Yankees are third in the American League East this year at 50-45, Derek Jeter has a lower OPS than fellow All-Star shortstop Cristian Guzman, and Alex Rodriguez has had to deal with his personal life's being a very public story much more than his hitting exploits.

But Mariano Rivera, the epitome of Yankee longevity and grace, is pitching better than ever at age 38 (with 23 saves in 23 opportunities, 50 strikeouts, four walks and a 1.06 ERA), and some sentimentalists wanted AL manager Terry Francona to reward him by naming him to start the All-Star Game. Francona, however, found the idea too gimmicky and a potential affront to the starters, so it's likely Rivera will be pitching in the ninth regardless of the score.

"It would have been nice for the city and the fans," Rivera said. "But for me, I prefer to close the game and be out there in the last inning. That's what I do."

I know the buzz from all the players, and most guys really wanted to get healthy and not miss this game. It's always an honor to go to the All-Star Game, but this one [at Yankee Stadium] is going to have a little more meaning to it.

--Twins closer Joe Nathan

If recent history is an indicator, Rivera stands a good chance of entering the game with a lead to protect. The American League has gone 10-0-1 since Mike Piazza led the NL to a 6-0 victory at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 1996.

Home field advantage in the World Series now goes to the winner, and if that doesn't add enough spice to the proceedings, consider this: The Red Sox and Yankees will be dressing side-by-side in the home clubhouse Tuesday night, which means that Jason Varitek and A-Rod will share a locker room that was once the domain of Thurman Munson. Try wrapping your mind around that concept for a minute.

Out on the playing field, after the anthem, little boys disguised as grown men will be living out their dreams in a baseball cathedral. That sounds like a heck of a lot more fun than being hauled to the hospital in the throes of an asthma attack.

Or maybe not. Nearly 20 years later, Kinsler maintains that his little medical emergency failed to put a crimp in his day.

"No way," Kinsler said. "Don Mattingly hit one out of the park. It was great."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.