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Cal grabs All-Star moment

Iron Man switches to shortstop, swats home run, wins MVP; 'It's been a great run'

By Joe Strauss

Sun Staff

July 11, 2001

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SEATTLE - The Safeco Field crowd stood at 6:19 p.m., almost too late to force Cal Ripken from the batter's box to acknowledge its welcome as he led off the third inning of a scoreless All-Star Game.

A tip of his helmet, a wave of the bat. Then a swing.

On the first All-Star pitch by Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Chan Ho Park - a fastball that drifted toward the middle of the plate - 40-year-old Ripken turned on the mistake with a 22-year-old's hands. And suddenly a balding man who slipped into the game with the least impressive numbers of any All-Star was running and watching while his line drive hooked toward the spectacularly improbable.

Ripken, defined almost as much by his flair for the dramatic as by his endurance during a 21-year Hall of Fame career, had become the oldest man to homer in an All-Star Game. At 40 years, 10 months and 10 days, he bettered Stan Musial by more than a year.

Even more, Ripken had elevated an Event with a Moment.

Only 82 days shy of retirement, Ripken earned his second All-Star Game MVP, the first American League player to do so.

"I think we appreciate everything a whole lot more at the end," Ripken said, minutes after the last out.

The home run over Safeco's left-field fence was Ripken's first since June 16 in Philadelphia. It was Ripken's second in 19 All-Star appearances; the other came in 1991, when he was named the game's Most Valuable Player in Toronto. Ripken's All-Star career ends with a .265 batting average, two home runs and eight RBIs. An unexpected position switch enabled him to break a tie with Ozzie Smith for most All-Star starts at shortstop (14).

On Monday, honorary All-Star Tony Gwynn noted how this game could make a man swing a bat 100 mph. For Ripken, it not only speeded up his bat, but lightened his shoes; his home run trot more closely resembled a sprint.

"I swung and made good contact. The ball went out of the ballpark. And I felt like I was flying around the bases," he said.

As he returned to the American League dugout, Ripken was greeted by men he plays against every other day of the season. New York Yankees manager Joe Torre beamed while his bench coach, Don Zimmer, smiled so broadly his eyes became slits.

"I still have a shot of adrenaline or a long case of goose bumps," Ripken said during the sixth inning of a game completed before sunset. "Coming to the plate, I was excited. I was a little worried about the shadows. I was in the cage swinging hard trying to get ready. I went up there thinking, 'Gosh, it's hard to see. Let's keep things short and put things in play.'

"I came out and tried to acknowledge them [the fans] very quickly, because I didn't want the game to be delayed for that. I got back in, saw the first pitch and swung at it."

It was 6:20 p.m., and Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez was ready to step into the box. Almost too slowly, Safeco Field again rose. Seconds passed.

Rodriguez, who had agreed to bat behind Ripken as a show of respect, stepped out. And Ripken, with his sense of the moment, was again out of the dugout with his helmet held high.

The All-Star Game is an increasingly contrived event for the game's network masters. Those wanting confrontation anticipated New York Yankees pitcher and American League starter Roger Clemens facing New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza in the third act of their much-hyped feud. The rematch became a footnote on Piazza's fly ball to right.

On his 48th All-Star at-bat, Ripken tore away all the hype to leave the 47,364 fans with something of significance. Ripken's season, so far a series of small letters, question marks and a single exclamation uttered on June 19, suddenly stood tall.

"It's like a dream come true," said Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa. "Everybody was on his feet and clapping, and, after that, he came in with the home run. ... That's amazing. He is The Man."

With the American League still leading 1-0 on the strength of his home run, Ripken returned for his second plate appearance in the fifth with one out and Jason Giambi at second base. Facing Colorado Rockies left-hander Mike Hampton this time, Ripken was met by a former teammate, Florida Marlins catcher Charles Johnson. He answered the catcher's greeting by tapping his bat on Johnson's shinguard.

Five pitches later, the at-bat was over on a grounder to shortstop. Rodriguez followed with an RBI single to bump the American League lead to 2-0.

The night was far from over, but only one thing still mattered.

At 7:06 p.m., Ripken was at his position at third base as if ready for the sixth inning, but he knew his game was over.

Anaheim Angels third baseman Troy Glaus jogged to third base to relieve Ripken and signal the beginning of a six-minute ceremony in which the Iron Man and San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn received the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award. (Ripken won the award retroactively for breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak in 1995 but last night touched it for the first time.)

Commissioner Bud Selig honored the "legacy" of Ripken and Gwynn during the on-field ceremony. Ripken, not wanting to interrupt the game for too long, said only: "I just want to say it's been a great run. Thank you very much."

Voted into the game as the starting third baseman, Ripken trotted out alongside Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez before the first pitch. But Rodriguez never swerved toward shortstop. Instead, Rodriguez pushed his boyhood idol toward the position Ripken last played on June 15, 1997.

"I must have been the only person on the whole planet who didn't know," said Ripken. "I went out there and thought this wasn't the time or the place to go back to short."

Rodriguez would not relent.

"Everybody's expecting you to do it," he said. "Go on over there."

Ripken moved haltingly to the position he once defined as an announcement was made of the switch. The move apparently was Rodriguez's idea. Ripken had insisted Monday that he had no inkling that he might play anywhere other than third base.

The game found Ripken and Rodriguez quickly when leadoff hitter Luis Gonzalez lifted a pop fly to shortstop. Rodriguez tracked the ball from third, and Ripken edged away. Rodriguez played it as a shortstop, calling off the transplanted third baseman.

"At first, I was really hoping Roger [Clemens] could strike out three guys and not have a play," said Ripken. "Then, after the first out, I started thinking I would like to have a play. After the second out, I really thought I'd like one. It was a good feeling. It was a different look. It was one I saw for the majority of my career. It was fun to go back and get that look."

He moved to third base later in the game.

As he had promised before arriving here Monday, Ripken continued to savor the experience. Rather than shower and dress after leaving the game, he found his 7-year-old son, Ryan, and brought him onto the bench.

"I probably broke a few rules, but he'll appreciate that experience for years to come," Ripken said. "I wanted to sit out there and just take it in. I just wanted to watch and be a part of the moment."