A bleary-eyed Barry Bonds almost gave his hometown fans the moment they wanted to see. But it was Ichiro Suzuki who gave everyone in chilly AT&T Park the thrill they'll always remember from the 78th All-Star Game.
Seattle's fleet center fielder, rumored to be on the verge of signing a $100 million contract extension with the Mariners, had three hits to earn Most Valuable Player honors and burst around the bases for the first inside-the-park home run in All-Star history as the American League held on for a 5-4 victory over the Nationals on Tuesday night.
The NL scored in the bottom of the ninth on Alfonso Soriano's two-out, two-run homer to right, then loaded the bases before Los Angeles' Francisco Rodriguez got Philadelphia's Aaron Roward on a lazy fly to right for the final out.
The win extended the AL's unbeaten streak in All-Star play to 11 games (10-0-1) and ensured the AL will have home-field advantage in the World Series for the sixth straight year -- including all five years in which the All-Star winner has been awarded that edge.
Bonds, who said he was up until 3 a.m. hosting his swank VIP party on the waterfront, went 0 for 2 but took Boston's Josh Beckett to the warning track in left field with a deep fly ball in the third that was hauled in by Detroit's Magglio Ordonez. The ballpark record crowd of 43,965 burst from its seats when the ball took off, only to be disappointed as it fell shy of the fence.
"He threw a good split," Bonds said of Beckett. "I hit it pretty good, but I didn't hit it good enough."
Ichiro's two-run shot with one out in the fifth off San Diego's Chris Young was a drive to right that struck a banner on the fence deep in the alley and caromed away from Ken Griffey Jr. By the time Griffey could catch up to it, Ichiro was streaking around the bases and scored standing up to give the AL a 2-1 lead it would not relinquish.
Ichiro became the first AL leadoff hitter with three hits since Oakland's Rickey Henderson did it in 1982.
"It was really fun," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "The past six years I've never had an All-Star Game where I was able to give my all. It was a really fun All-Star Game. When I hit the ball, I thought it was out. I just kept running."
"It just kicked the other way," Griffey said. "It didn't hit off the brick [on the wall]. I came back in the dugout, and Barry [Bonds] and I looked at each other and he said that's never happened before."
Bonds, who joked before the game that his party had left him "brain-dead," got a huge ovation during introductions. The 42-year-old thoroughly enjoyed the moment, doffing his cap and bowing to all corners of the ballpark after he was introduced. It was yet another example of how Giants fans have supported him unconditionally in his quest to break Hank Aaron's home run record.
"This is my family," Bonds said. "These people, a lot of them I grew up with throughout my years. All you can say is 'thank you.' You don't know what to say. You're actually lost for words. It's a great feeling. I'll be forever grateful."
Bonds had a key part in an emotional pregame ceremony featuring his godfather, legendary Giants center fielder Willie Mays. It was reminiscent of the 1999 game in Boston's Fenway Park, when All-Stars mobbed a wheelchair-bound Ted Williams in an impromptu gathering on the mound.
Mays, still mobile at age 76, strode from behind the center-field wall through a line of players formed by both teams and was accompanied by Bonds and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the crowd roared. Mays then threw the ceremonial first pitch in center field to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes.
"Oh my God, I haven't been out there [in center field] in at least 15, 20 years," Mays said with a laugh.
"That was outstanding to be able to do that and have the fans cheer," Bonds said.
After making his pitch, Mays was paraded around the park in a 1958 Cadillac and even flipped a few balls into the stands.
Ichiro, who is fluent in baseball history, said he was proud to be part of the moment and wished he had been able to see Mays play in his heyday. Thought to be headed to free agency, the sudden July 1 resignation of manager Mike Hargrove, whom Ichiro did not like, may have changed his mind about staying in Seattle.
"Whatever happens, everybody will know in the future, whenever that might be," said Ichiro, who had never hit an inside-the-parker in his seven years with the Mariners.
The AL extended its lead to 3-1 on a homer by Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford into the right-field bleachers off Milwaukee's Francisco Cordero with two out in the sixth. Griffey cut the gap to 3-2 with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning, but Cleveland catcher and ex-Buffalo Bison Victor Martinez pulled a two-out pinch homer in the eighth off Mets closer Billy Wagner to push the lead to three runs and help the AL survive the NL's late rally.
"We're tired of hearing about this streak of losing," Derrek Lee said. "We want to win one of these years and put that to rest."