07/11/05 3:25 PM ET
Francona sets up AL lineup for success
Damon leads off; Roberts bats ninth
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Francona had to choose between Damon -- who rides into Tuesday night's Midsummer Classic with a 25-game hitting streak and a .343 average -- and Brian Roberts, the leadoff man who is having a magnificent season for the Orioles.
The choice? Damon. While Francona will never apologize for having loyalty to his own player, he did acknowledge what a difficult decision it was and that both players were so deserving of the nod atop the order.
"We have Brian Roberts hitting ninth. He's probably going to be an MVP candidate," Francona said. "I think Johnny Damon is doing the same thing, and he did it last year. I did wrestle with it. What I did wrestle is Brian Roberts understanding why I wanted Johnny Damon to lead off. I went over and talked to him about it; he's an awesome kid, he not only completely agreed, but he said he was going to come talk to me. I did want to talk to him and make him understand that this was certainly not a slap in the face, but something I thought needed to be done, not only because of what Johnny has done this year, but for his career."
Not that the lineup dilemmas got any easier after the top spot. Alex Rodriguez batting second was probably the easiest decision for Francona. But with the amount of mashers, the middle of the order could have been filled out a number of different ways.
Francona went with his Boston alignment -- David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez -- in the three and four spots. Miguel Tejada, the magnificent shortstop of the Orioles, will hit fifth, followed by reigning American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero, Boston catcher Jason Varitek and Roberts.
That should be a lineup even I shouldn't be able to screw up," quipped Francona.
If Roy Halladay hadn't been injured on Friday, he would have been at the podium with Francona at the press conference instead of back in Toronto on crutches. Mark Buehrle, the solid lefty from the White Sox, will be the starting pitcher for the AL.
Francona told Buehrle the news on Sunday, and White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen let it slip to Chicago writers a day before the announcement was supposed to be public knowledge.
That prompted Francona to have a little fun, saying,
"And the worst-kept secret in America, our starting pitcher will be Mark Buehrle," said Francona. "Mark and Roy Halladay were our two top considerations. When Roy backed out for obvious reasons with the injury, Mark was our clear choice to be our starter. He leads a staff on a team that is clearly one of the dominant American League teams this year, and we all think he is very deserving of this honor, everybody we have talked to says the same thing. Not only is he a great kid, but we all know he's a great pitcher."
With home-field advantage at stake for the World Series, Francona will do his best to win the game, but also execute proper rotation of players.
"We're going to do our best to be respectful to the players, to the game, understanding that these players certainly deserve to play," Francona said. "But at the same time, you have to be always concerned there could be an injury, there could be extra innings, and what it means to win this game. I mean, having home-field advantage is a big deal. It's a big deal to a lot of people. So you have to treat it that way, and we certainly will."
Last year, Ramirez and Ortiz belted homers to pace the AL to victory. That wound up being a fortuitous thing for the Red Sox, when they got their World Series sweep off to a rousing start with victories at Fenway Park.
Could things have turned out differently for Tony La Russa and the Cardinals if the National League had won last year's All-Star Game?
While La Russa has the privilege of managing his fourth All-Star team, this is a first-time thing for Francona, and he was noticeably honored.
"After 86 years of passion, frustration, fanatical fans, and a lot of genuine love for their team, I'm very excited and honored to represent not only the Boston Red Sox organization, but the entire Red Sox Nation today," said Francona.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.