2001 All-Star Game not even Cal’s best

Cal Ripken’s magical home run in his final All-Star Game might be one of the 16 greatest moments in the history of the Midsummer Classic. But I’m not even sure it was Ripken’s greatest All-Star moment.

Ten years before, Ripken had crushed 10 homers in his first 14 swings while winning the Home Run Derby, then hit a three-run shot the next night to lift the American League to a 4-2 victory over the NL.

The Iron Man had a flair for the dramatic, that’s for sure. And while his 2001 farewell in Seattle created more emotional resonance than his 1991 eruption in Toronto, both performances were classic, rise-to-the-occasion Ripken, Cal heeding the call.

I covered Ripken from 1987 to 2000, first as an Orioles beat writer, then as a columnist for The (Baltimore) Sun. On the few occasions I was critical of him — mostly later in his career, as he entered his decline but refused to end his record consecutive-games streak — he would do something fantastic to make me look foolish.

The Orioles, as a team, were more obliging, justifying every negative column with a fresh set of baseball atrocities. But if I wrote that Ripken needed a rest, he would respond that night with a monstrous offensive performance. If I wrote he was slowing down at shortstop, he would make one brilliant play after another for an entire week.

In September of 1997, I argued that a struggling Ripken should end his streak and rest up for the postseason. Ripken did no such thing, of course, then demonstrated his exhaustion by batting .385 in the playoffs.

I was in the middle of writing a heartfelt apology to Ripken during Game 6 of the ALCS when Orioles reliever Armando Benitez allowed a series-deciding home run by the Indians’ Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning.

Alas, the story changed, and my apology never saw print.

I mention all this merely to explain that what happened in the 2001 All-Star Game should not have surprised anyone who closely followed Ripken’s career.

The game began with a beautiful, classy gesture by Alex Rodriguez, who had been elected the AL’s starting shortstop. Ripken, who had announced that he would retire at the end of the season, was the elected starter at third base. But when the two took the field, Rodriguez pushed Ripken toward short, his old position.

The acknowledgment was fitting; Ripken, by proving he could play short at 6-foot-4, had created opportunity for Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and other tall shortstops. Joe Torre, the AL manager, was in on the plan, and smiled and waved Ripken toward short from the dugout.

Rodriguez returned to short in the second inning. Ripken’s home run came in the third, off of the Dodgers’ Chan Ho Park. Ripken was 40 then, soon to turn 41. He became the oldest player to hit a home run in an All-Star Game, and the first AL player to be named MVP of the All-Star Game twice.

Yet, this was not 1991, Ripken’s finest offensive season. This was 2001, and Ripken entered the All-Star break hitting just .240 with four home runs and 28 RBI. Looking at the numbers, watching him in the twilight of his career, few would have guessed that he would produce a stirring All-Star sendoff.

But that’s exactly what he did.

In the days and weeks that followed, some speculated that Park grooved the pitch to Ripken, making it easier for the Iron Man to deliver his special moment. Much as I relish conspiracy theories, this one made little sense.

Park was pitching in his first All Star-Game. He would never appear in another one. Ripken hit the first pitch that Park threw.

Does anyone seriously believe that Park wanted to give up a homer on his first pitch as an All-Star? Heck, even if he did groove the pitch, Ripken still had to strike the ball and hit it out of pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Not so easy.

Anyway, Ripken’s home run broke a scoreless tie, and the AL ended up winning, 4-1.

“That’s the kind of magic that Cal brings to the field, that he has brought to the field for 20 years,” said Randy Johnson, the NL’s starting pitcher. “It would have been very fitting if it ended being a 1-0 ballgame and he got the game-winning homer.”

Well, Ripken couldn’t write the entire script, though sometimes he made you wonder. One night at Camden Yards, he hit a foul ball straight back into the press box. The ball smashed into my laptop as if it was a heat-seeking missile, breaking the sucker but good.

Tour guides at Camden Yards still tell the story, greatly exaggerating the details. Ripken, they say, was upset about something I wrote, and somehow exacted revenge by busting my computer. As if he could aim a freakin’ foul ball.

Come to think of it, maybe he could.

The 2001 All-Star Game proved he was capable of almost anything.