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At Ease, Men - The All-Star Break, and Its Temporary, Enforced Idleness...By Nelson Lardner

Ah, the half-week that so many action junkies dread . . . major-league baseball's All-Star break, the longest sustained black hole on the American sports-gaming calendar.

No real big-four games to evaluate, and possibly pounce upon . . . for THREE WHOLE DAYS. Yes, I know . . . they played an arena-football game Monday night. But get serious. Is this a fate worse than death, or what?

Not really.

Now, you could talk yourself into all kinds of action regarding the All-Star game (an exhibition, according to the owners' Main Man, Bud Selig - even though there is a Cracker Jack prize in the box: homefield advantage in the World Series, for the winner . . . ). But as is the case in most exhibitions, valid insights into the players' mindsets would seem crucial. And as for the total of 10 runs . . . mine eyes have seen that made into a mockery, at times - most notably the year (San Diego's 1992 host-job, at Jack Murphy, is my recollection) when the Poobahs of Hardball apparently decided to start the game with baseballs whose seams were barely risen above-and-beyond the ol' horsehide's leather surface.

Pitchers (especially the Braves' Tom Glavine) had severe problems with their grips, the ball didn't move as the pitchers were accustomed to - and beaucoup runs resulted, due to an engineered factor entirely disconnected from the handicapping of pitcher/batter matchups. Tough way to lose, if you were on the under - apparently dictated by the equipment used.

Most-recently, the All-Star side winner has been consistently foreshadowed by a combination of league-personnel superiority and managerial/ coaching intensity levels. It is no accident during the Junior Circuit's recent sustained ascendancy, the AL's won nine straight (ignoring Bud's Folly, the 7-7 tie in 2002, in Milwaukee . . . ). Respecting this trend - which shows no signs of fading - the American League is a modest -125 favorite, despite playing on the road at Pac Bell Park.

Many have already gone on record decrying July as the slowest sports month of the year. For the committed major-sport speculator, that's probably true - given that the winter-sport playoffs stretch into June, and preseason NFL and the first college-football games lend a glimmer of hope to steamy August.

So you're left with Wimbledon (which, surely, you can't knock this year, especially the scintillating men's final), the British Open (in two weeks), baseball in high season, NASCAR (for its niche market), and many, many thoroughbred racetracks going full-blast.

To be held this time around at Carnoustie, the 2007 British Open figures to be yet another Tiger Woods coronation. He's just been warming up for it this month; don't take his less-than-stellar performance in this past weekend's AT&T National steambath at face value, even though it was Tiger's baby. Woods' game is precisely-suited to Britain's most-testing golf challenges - especially the winds, with which Woods can cope, better than anyone alive. With any distractions put aside, Woods' British defense might prove easier than even most of his strongest adherents might wish.

Baseball speaks for itself. Once the boys settle down following the break, it'll be time to get serious. While still more than a month away from the most serious of the homestretch action, there'll be plenty of opportunities for perceptive students of baseball form, both in matchup evaluations, and those situational plays (frequently schedule-based) which turn up time and again, season after season.

But it's the racetrackers for whom this calendar stretch means the most. With its new Polytrack surface, Del Mar opens July 18 and runs through September 5. The East's crown jewel, Saratoga, begins in earnest July 25 and wraps it up on Labor Day. The nation's top horsemen plot and plan all season to ensure their charges enjoy optimum opportunities to "do good" on either coast at these premier meetings. And the eagerness to get down to business at Del Mar has increased, if that's possible, with the kinder Polytrack main track likely to prove far less wearing on equine competitors than the previous dirt oval. Fuller fields are expected, and the meeting figures to feature one surprising result after another. Saratoga fields don't project to be quite as bulky as Del Mar's, but the upper-bracket level of sport will be extraordinary. While many sports fans may be counting the days until football, racing fans in July are like kids anticipating the holiday haul. Hold on, horseplayers.

Nelson Lardner

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