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All-Star Magic 

Legends of the game celebrate baseball's heaven on earth

click to enlarge Colorado Rockies Todd Helton
  • Colorado Rockies Todd Helton

Seattle -- They called it storybook. An All-Star Game for the ages. And this year's midsummer classic was brimming with stories far exceeding the requisite hot topic or two to satisfy the hordes.

There were countless temptations to feast on, from Bonds' astonishing 39 home runs at the break, the Mariners phenomenal 63-24 record, propelling eight of their own onto the team, the impact of Japanese rookie sensation Ichiro Suzuki, hitting .347 for the Mariners at the break, a Clemens-Piazza rematch (the first since last year's World Series broken bat fiasco), and Alex Rodriguez's return to the city he left for a $250 million contract that wasn't about the money.

Commissioner Bud Selig and his merry band of marketers did their best to glitz up the packaging, celebrating multiculturalism and baseball's new globalism with everything from the music of Carlos Santana to the seven-year-old grandson of Roberto Clemente taking an exhilarating run around the bases.

But ultimately, the focus was drawn to the field, where the game's glory was dusted off by a pair of dugouts full of players reveling in the honor of sharing the bench with the game's elite. The fireworks began with an immediate introduction into the new-style take on old-school ball as Ichiro Suzuki hit a hard grounder fast down the first base line to lead-off for the American League.

Colorado Rockie Todd Helton showed his underappreciated leather prowess in a diving grab down the first base line, pulling the ball back after it had already passed him and tossing the ball to starting pitcher Randy Johnson for the out. But the dangerous Ichiro, who seems to be running to first before even finishing his swing, beat Johnson to the bag for a trademark infield single, later stealing second to ignite his team and set the tone for a gritty 4-1 American League victory.

Root, root, root for the Rockies

While the Mariners boasted four starters in the game, the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Giants shared the National League line-up with two starters each.

Playing in his second consecutive All-Star Game, Todd Helton hoped his play on Tuesday would give him the kind of emotional lift that could translate to improved playing on the field for the second half of the season. "I definitely need it," the self-critical Helton told the Indy, referring to the disappointment he finds in hitting "only" .314, with 21 home runs and 67 RBI at the break.

Rockies starting pitcher Mike Hampton fulfilled a dream he revealed to the Indy the day before the game. When asked if there was anyone he was particularly eager to face among the devastating A.L. line-up, only one name came to mind. "I'd like to be able to say that I faced Cal Ripken, Jr," Hampton confided. "His last year, last All-Star Game. I think that'd be something pretty special."

Hampton got his wish, inducing Ripken to ground out to short in the fifth inning. Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers pitcher who faced Ripken in the third inning, was not nearly so successful.

End of the Iron Era

Playing in his A.L. record 19th All-Star Game, Ripken received a game-delaying ovation when he was announced at the plate to lead off the bottom of the third inning. "The first thing that goes through my mind is I'm embarrassed," Ripken said of his reaction to the crowd. He stepped out of the box, tipped his cap, stepped back in, and knocked the first pitch over the left-centerfield fence for the game's first run. The mythic blast did nothing to calm the crowd.

"It went over the fence and I started clapping," admitted Tony Gwynn after the game, still surprised at himself for applauding from the opposing dugout. "I kind of looked around [the dugout] and everybody else was clapping, so that made me feel better. ... It happened on his night. He's the MVP. Storybook story. It was unbelievable."

Ripken later recalled his own feelings about the home run, describing a "shot of adrenaline, a rush, the consistent feeling of goose bumps down the back of your neck. I actually felt like I was fast for the first time in my career," he laughed, noting his pumped-up run around the bases. "Shaking hands and the high fives in the dugout, all the great all-stars, the great players and then being called back out for the curtain call ... that's some good stuff."

Ultimately, Ripken was named the game's Most Valuable Player, but he experienced an unanticipated tribute in the top of the first inning when, after warming up in their respective positions, starting shortstop Alex Rodriguez told Ripken to move from third to short. "I thought at first it was just him," Ripken told the Indy of the unprecedented switch back to his old position, "but I realized when he pointed over to the dugout that everybody else was in on it except me. At that time, fear ran through my veins."

He claimed to be wishing for three strike outs from starting pitcher Roger Clemens so that he didn't have to face the challenge of experimenting back at shortstop on so prominent a world stage, but before the inning ended, the man who redefined the position was itching to have a ball hit to him. "I played most of my career at shortstop," Ripken noted. "It was great seeing the game from shortstop again."

Even dyed-in-the-wool National Leaguers couldn't hold back their enthusiasm. "You couldn't write a better script for him," said Tommy Lasorda, former Dodgers and Olympics manager and honorary coach for the National League.

"It was one of the highlights of my life," said opposing manager Bobby Valentine of Ripken's home run that has already been compared to Ted Williams' home run in his last career at bat. "To see Cal get a standing ovation and step in and hit a first pitch home run was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen."

There could hardly have been a better stage than a Seattle, city so feverish with baseball that the hallucinatory mojo of a night filled with stars made for a rare vision, the likes of which we'll never see again.


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