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You can count on Buck being a star at mike

A year ago, the Fox-backed "This Time It Counts" initiative helped revitalize baseball's All-Star Game, with the national television audience peaking in the final half-hour, when the Rangers' Hank Blalock homered in the eighth inning off Dodgers closer Eric Gagne, leading the American League to a 7-6 victory at US Cellular Field in Chicago. Ratings-wise, having home-field advantage for the World Series at stake didn't have a big effect. Last year's telecast did a 9.5 rating, tying the record low from the previous season. In Boston, last year's game did a 16.8 rating, a nice bump from the 12.9 rating for the prior year's aesthetically unsatisfying 11-inning 7-7 tie in Milwaukee.

Tuesday night's 75th All-Star Game (8 o'clock, Ch. 25) at Houston's Minute Maid Park again will have home field for the World Series at stake. For those who aren't interested in the extended pregame blather, expect the first pitch at about 8:40. However, it should be worth tuning in a few minutes earlier as Muhammad Ali is scheduled to throw out the first pitch.

Ali retains his Star Among Stars appeal -- remember him lighting the Olympic flame at the Atlanta Games in 1996? -- even if his All-Star "start" may or may not capture the moment the way Ted Williams's appearance did at the 1999 game at Fenway Park.

"Last year, I think we all got a chuckle out of how many times we had to say, `This time it counts,' " said play-by-play man Joe Buck, who will be calling his sixth All-Star Game. "Well, in retrospect, I'll say this: My fifth All-Star Game felt different from the first four. There was more intensity, more incentive to win, and more reason to watch. Baseball is the best all-star game out there. And it was only made better by having something on the line. In previous years you wondered: Is this a game or a TV show? That was made obvious the previous year in Milwaukee with the tie when the game fizzled at the end and they said, in effect, `Nice try. See ya next year.' "

Buck clearly is comfortable speaking his mind.

"He's one of the most intelligent, opinionated broadcasters I've worked with," said analyst Tim McCarver. "He always makes sense. He's not throwing stuff out there to get a reaction, either from me or the audience."

Buck on BALCO and the steroids issue: "Obviously the public isn't as worried about the steroid issues as much as the headlines would indicate."

On being outspoken: "Back when I was calling games with my dad [legendary Cardinals announcer Jack Buck], I always knew when I'd gone too far or said too much about an umpire's strike zone when I got that look out of dad's eye that said, `Stop right there.' I think I've taken a lot of that to TV. Tim [McCarver] and [bosses] Ed [Goren] and David [Hill] don't give me that look. Opinion is good most of the time. But you can overdo it.

"When I'm watching at home and someone starts pontificating, I hit the mute button. At the park, I try to avoid saying something I'd mute myself for. I'll leave the opinions to Tim McCarver." Usually.

High-stepping

Fox is planning to launch its true high-definition broadcasts with the start of the NFL season and World Series. However, Goren, the president of Fox Sports, said Wednesday the network will be doing an experimental HD broadcast from Houston Tuesday night. "We're still working on a number of equipment issues, and the majority of our stations are awaiting delivery of HD equipment," he said. However, the folks at Channel 25 have the necessary equipment installed and, though they're not counting on an HD broadcast of the game, say they'll air the HD signal should it arrive . . . This is McCarver's 13th All-Star broadcast, matching the mark set by Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola. "It's only Joe Buck's sixth All-Star Game," said McCarver, "but he's only 35. I think he'll blow by all of us." . . . Fox is implanting three lipstick-sized cameras -- called "Diamond Cams" -- in fair territory. Two will be in the grass just in front of the batter's box to give what Goren calls "an intimate portrait" of the batter, catcher, and umpire. Another in front of the mound should do the same for the pitchers . . . Jeanne Zelasko and Kevin Kennedy host the pre- and postgame shows and also will serve as in-game reporters . . . Expect a flurry of promos for Fox's newly launched shows. If you're into surfing during commercials or watching via TiVo, the promos are for "North Shore," "The Casino," "The Simple Life 2," "Method and Red," "Quintuplets," and "The Jury." What happened to summer reruns? "Launching in summer is the new paradigm," said Goren . . . As for the 8:40 p.m. first pitch: "The reality is that the later you start, the higher the ratings," said Goren . . . On Houston's Roger Clemens pitching to the Mets' Mike Piazza for the National League: "We'll have to run the video of the [2000] beaning and subsequent broken bat incident," said Goren. "It's part of the story," said Buck. "I look at it as an opportunity for Clemens. I bet he voted for Piazza. It gives him the opportunity to throw to him, then shake his hand and put it to bed."

Club's house

ESPN has Home Run Derby coverage tomorrow at 8 p.m. All living members of the 500 home run club will be on the field. It's a growing group with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, Mike Schmidt, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Murray watching fellow members Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa take part. The 1999 derby in Boston gave ESPN a 7.5 rating. Locally, the 2002 competition did a 6.1 and the 2003 did a 4.3. ESPN has a Legends and Celebrity softball game following the Home Run Derby . . . FSN has tonight's Revolution-Chicago Fire game at 9:30. At halftime, there will be a Brad Feldman-produced feature on pro soccer in New England during the 1970s. Channels 4 and 5 loaned footage of the Tea Men and Minutemen . . . Revising the NESN schedule for "16 in 60" -- condensed versions of the top 16 pre-All-Star break Red Sox games: NESN will run four games each of the next three evenings, starting tomorrow at 7, then two each on Thursday and Friday before the pregame report and Sox games at Anaheim . . . Last Thursday night's Sox-Athletics series finale did a 12.1 rating, NESN's best for a non Sox-Yankees game. It also raised the network's season average for Sox telecasts to a 9.1 . . . Carl Oliveri of Saugus, a graduate student at Boston College, was the June winner in the NESN/Sam Adams announcer for an inning contest. Details of how to compete for the right to call an inning of the Sept. 21 Sox-Orioles game are on www.nesn.com and www.samadams.com . . . Baseball is center stage on tonight's late shows. Channel 4's "Sports Final" has a look at "Who is Manny [Ramirez]?" Channel 7's "Sports Xtra" has Dave Briggs and the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy on from All-Star Central in Houston, with Michael Smith and Michael Holley in studio. And WBZ radio's overnight guy, Steve LeVeille, has a midnight interview with Johnny Pesky set to go.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com

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