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Fans, peers left to lament Ripken void


ATLANTA - An autograph seeker from Virginia spoke for an entire sport yesterday, telling Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, "I wish Cal was down here."

"I've only been here a few hours," Bordick said, "and his name has come up so much."

The name Cal Ripken.

The name that has been synonymous with the All-Star Game for 18 seasons.

"It's a tradition to come to the All-Star Game and look for Cal," Roberto Alomar said.

But for once, Ripken is nowhere to be found.

Four elected starters from each league could miss tonight's game if Alomar is unable to play because of an elbow injury. But Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey will be back, as will Barry Bonds and Mike Piazza.

With Ripken, no one knows.

Sidelined by back trouble, he was advised by doctors not to fly to Atlanta, according to American League manager Joe Torre.

And so, Ripken will miss one of baseball's most magical events, as Torre put it, "for the first time in 100 years or so."

"It's very tough," Torre said. "Not to have Cal as part of this team, physically as a part of this team, you feel like there's something missing, there's no question."

Shortstop Derek Jeter said it would be "kind of weird" without Ripken. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez spoke of "a little hole in the clubhouse."

Yet, even on a day he was absent, Ripken's presence was undeniable.

Former Orioles Steve Finley and Jeffrey Hammonds might not have become All-Stars if not for his example.

Jeter and Alex Rodriguez might not have become shortstops if he hadn't proved a bigger man could play the position.

Even Barry Bonds, a player whose image is far different from Ripken's, said he was inspired by the Iron Man during an All-Star tour of Japan after the 1996 season.

"I have never been in awe of an individual as much as I was in awe of him," Bonds said. "The way he kept his body in shape, how strong he was, then to have the energy to do some of the other things, I just gasped at it."

But now Ripken is coming off back surgery, nearing his 40th birthday, turning mortal. He was bound to slow down. But like no athlete before him, he made time stand still.

His first All-Star appearance was in 1983. Ronald Reagan was in his first term then. National League All-Star Andruw Jones was 6 years old.

Ripken played in All-Star Games at the old Comiskey Park, Candlestick Park and the Astrodome. He was teammates with Reggie Jackson. He was teammates with Bo Jackson.

So many years. So many games. So many memories.

In '91, Ripken put on one of the greatest displays in All-Star history, winning the home run-hitting contest, then hitting a three-run shot off Dennis Martinez to lift the AL to a 4-2 victory.

In '93, he considered withdrawing because of a horrid slump, then received perhaps the loudest ovation in Camden Yards history, saying it was "beyond what anyone can comprehend."

And in '94, he nearly threw out Tony Gwynn at the plate in the 10th inning with a gorgeous relay throw, only to see the play foiled when Ivan Rodriguez failed to block the plate.

Lest we forget, Ripken also suffered the most famous broken nose in All-Star lore when Roberto Hernandez caught him with a forearm after slipping off a platform at the conclusion of a pre-game photo shoot in '96.

"Please," Hernandez said, praying in the clubhouse, "please let him be OK."

Ripken played that night, just as always.

But four years later, the Iron Man is flat on his back while Hammonds, his oft-injured former teammate, is an All-Star because of someone else's physical misfortune.

Only in baseball.

Hammonds made the NL team as an emergency replacement for Griffey. Tony Batista replaced Ripken on the AL roster, and Travis Fryman replaced him in the starting lineup.

"This is my fifth All-Star team, and I've caddied for Cal in every All-Star Game I've ever been in," Fryman said. "I carried his bags at shortstop for a few years. Then I carried his bags as a third baseman.

"I just think that's the way it's supposed to be. I'm supposed to carry his bags until he decides he's not going to play anymore. And I'm perfectly content to do that."

Fryman's memory wasn't totally accurate - this is his first All-Star appearance since Ripken moved to third base in 1997 - but you get the picture.

The game isn't the same without Ripken.

"It's a little odd, in all honesty," Fryman said. "One of the real thrills for me in the All-Star Games I've been in is the chance to talk to Cal and pick his brain.

"I've talked to him about fielding ground balls and about hitting. I've talked to him about his new hitting stances he has every year. I always look forward to seeing what he's tinkered with."

So many players looked forward to seeing Ripken.

Hammonds said he dreamed of becoming an All-Star so he could play with Ripken in "his game." The injured Alex Rodriguez said he wanted nothing more than to form the left side of the AL infield with his boyhood idol.

Finley, the kid from Paducah, Ky., who helped spark the Orioles' 1989 "Why Not?" season, is now a 35-year-old veteran with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He credits his mental toughness to Ripken.

"He has played for so long, every single day," Finley said. "He always had little nagging injuries, even when I was there in '89 and '90. But he always went out there on the field.

"I learned a lot from him, just watching the way he played. I never wanted to come out of the lineup, no matter how badly I was hurt. I always remembered what he did. I looked up to him in that way.

"It's unfortunate he can't be here. He's one of the all-time greats. He's one of my favorite players I've ever played with.

"If he's not here," Finley said, "he's hurting really bad."

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