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National League All-Stars still haunted by curse of The Vet

ANAHEIM -- The last time the National League won an All Star Game, Jason Heyward was a rookie -- at the AABC Youth Baseball League in McDonough, Ga. It was the summer of 1996, Heyward's first season of organized baseball, and he was playing what is known to fathers and sons everywhere as coach-pitch.

"The coach would pitch you the ball, and if you couldn't hit it, they let you use a tee," Heyward explained. "I admit I used the tee a few times."

That's how long it has been since the National League won this thing: Jason Heyward of the Atlanta Braves, who was voted as a rookie to start in the All-Star Game this year, needed a tee to make contact.

In baseball, more than any major sport, every team can be beaten on a given day -- unless, of course, that team is the American League and that day falls in mid-July. This season, the Red Sox have lost six games to the Orioles, the Rays have lost four to the Marlins and the Yankees have lost three to the Mariners. So what does it say that the American League has not lost to the National League in 13 years? Is the gap between the two leagues wider than the one between the Red Sox and the Orioles?

Of course not, given that the National League has won four of the past nine World Series and took a respectable 118 of the 252 inter-league games this summer.

"It's just one of those freakish things," said Braves catcher Brian McCann, pointing to the preponderance of one-run games the NL has lost, including four in a row.

Last year they blew the game in the eighth inning and the year before that in the 15th. They led in the ninth in 2006, the eighth in 2003 and the eighth in 2002. Their luck does not seem to be improving, either. Now that Heyward is actually old enough to play, he is out with a bone bruise. The curse of The Vet, site of the 1996 All-Star Game, lives on.

The NL can blame its hitters -- since 1998 they've averaged just over three runs per game -- and its closers. In the past four years Heath Bell, Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman took turns blowing leads, ties or manageable deficits. Going back further, Eric Gagne and Robb Nen did the same. If NL manager Charlie Manuel wants to consult game film from '96 -- which he surely will not -- he would see the importance of a quick start. The NL got a leadoff double from the unforgettable Lance Johnson and grabbed a 3-0 lead behind John Smoltz en route to a 6-0 win.

"If I told you I remember a whole lot about that I'd be lying," said Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who along with Alex Rodriguez are the only current All-Stars from the game. "It was a long time ago."

So long, in fact, that the game featured four players who have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame -- Tony Gwynn, Ozzie Smith, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr.

No one ever cares who wins All-Star Games until one side wins a rash of them and then pressure mounts -- on the losers to snap the streak and the winners to keep it going.

"I don't want people to say, 'You ended it,'" said Angels center fielder Torii Hunter.

With the emergence of NL pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson and soon-to-be All-Star Stephen Strasburg, Hunter does not see the run lasting much longer. Baseball has become increasingly dependent on pitching and defense, traditional NL hallmarks.

And yet, the World Series favorites are obviously still in the AL. If upstarts like the Reds or Padres can sneak through the NL playoffs and into the World Series, they will need every edge they can get, including home-field advantage decided by the All-Star Game.

"You watch," said Bell. "The NL wins. The Padres win. You're going to wish you put money on it."

He predicts that he will not throw a single breaking ball Tuesday night -- "I'm going after every guy," he said -- and that Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier will win the game with yet another clutch hit in the late innings.

Bell was joined on stage at the NL press conference Monday by his 67-year-old father, Jimmie Bell, who was diagnosed in February with lung cancer and recently finished radiation treatments and chemotherapy. A year ago, Jimmie watched his son lose the All-Star Game, and at Fanfest on Monday, he ran 90 feet between bases in less than 10 seconds.

The AL will have Ichiro Suzuki delivering his usual profanity-laced pep talk before Tuesday's game.

The NL just has a simple message from Jimmie Bell: "Don't quit."

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