SEATTLE - A season of lasts brought Cal Ripken to the Emerald City yesterday, where he and San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn became the focus of a sport that has begun its goodbyes.
The 72nd Baseball All-Star Game welcomed Ripken for the 19th and final time, as commissioner Bud Selig feted both retiring players during an afternoon news conference at Safeco Field.
"I'm just trying to soak everything in," Ripken said. "I don't want to miss anything. You keep your eyes open to more things. You see the details. You see the little things most clearly."
Accompanied by his son, Ryan, Ripken arrived at the park early and stayed late. Having announced his retirement June 19, Ripken can see his career's end. He now savors every second of every day, especially one in which he walked into an All-Star clubhouse as a player for the final season.
"I've never had the experience of seeing a locker room for this event wake up," he said. "You start to see it come alive. It has a lot of energy and eventually becomes mass hysteria. That was kind of cool. There's a certain excitement you're looking forward to."
Selig presented both players with $100,000 checks to benefit their favorite organizations. For Ripken, it was his youth baseball initiative, while Gwynn's was a foundation chaired by him and his wife.
Ripken, the Iron Man, starts tonight at third base for the American League, breaking Brooks Robinson's league record for most All-Star appearances. Gwynn, the eight-time batting champion, will sit on the National League bench as an honorary member. Each embraces the moment as a late, brilliant flash within an increasingly finite career.
"It's special. That's one of the special things about the All-Star Game. They put baseball back on the map," said Oakland Athletics first baseman Jason Giambi.
Ripken's significance to baseball remains a central thread running through tonight's game. Questions about his statistics are muted because of his career's meaning.
Many of Ripken's AL teammates reflected on his impact. Drawing his most stirring memory, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter cited The Streak, but then thought again.
"I think just seeing him out there at shortstop, because that's something you hadn't seen before - a guy that tall [6 feet 4]," Jeter said. "He helped make it an offensive position. It used to be a shortstop hit .240 and played great defense. I remember growing up playing shortstop. People would say, 'You're too tall to play shortstop.' And I'd say, 'But what about Cal Ripken?' "
Seattle Mariners reliever and Catonsville native Jeff Nelson will be making his first All-Star appearance. He's a participant in pickup basketball games at Ripken's Reisterstown gym.
"To be here for this is particularly special," Nelson said. "I've waited a long time to get here, and to be here when Cal plays his last All-Star Game is something you'll always remember."
"I think all of us who have played the game would have loved to be in the situation that Cal was in," said Gwynn, who played as many as 160 games in a season only once. "It's more than just going to work. You've got to have some passion for what you do. Him playing all those games tells me he loves what he does. He takes a lot of pride in it. There's nothing wrong with that."
"Cal is a good friend of mine, so I definitely think he should be here, no doubt about it," said former Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett. "He meant so much to the game. I think what you saw Cal Ripken do in our lives you'll never see again. ... I'm just honored to be his friend."
Ripken will bat eighth, hitting behind Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez and ahead of Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Ripken's .240 average, four home runs and 28 RBIs might suggest a lower spot in the order. Respect for his standing dictates otherwise.
"Joe told me he wanted to hit me ninth because he didn't want to put Cal Ripken ninth," Rodriguez said. "That's OK. I'm just happy to be in there."
So was Ripken.
Ripken and his family didn't arrive in Seattle until 9:30 a.m. local time. After first driving to Dulles International Airport to learn that their flight had been canceled, they then hurried to Baltimore-Washington International and found seats on a 7 a.m. nonstop. Ripken literally hit the ground running. After breakfast, Ripken changed into workout clothes, attended an instructional seminar held by his brother, jogged across the street to prepare for batting practice, then began an interview tour that took him to four different rooms on two floors of Safeco Field.
Ripken spoke of his most powerful All-Star moments as his first one in 1983 and his Most Valuable Player performance in 1991. Gwynn recalled 1994 because he scored the winning run for the NL by beating Ripken's relay in the ninth inning and 1999 because of his accompanying Ted Williams to the Fenway Park mound for one of the most poignant moments in the event's history.
"I think I was the youngest player at my first game," Ripken said. "And then to see a transition of younger players come in and make their mark ... now [I'm] probably the oldest. You look around and see those guys just starting out and see them going to work, That's a really cool evolution."
Ripken couldn't stay away from youth instruction, his next career's work.
Bill Ripken began the early afternoon session by discussing the approach of keeping a simple game simple. "It's a simple game. You have a ball, a bat and a glove," he said. "It only gets complicated when you bring people into it."
The younger Ripken's message could have been delivered by the brothers' father, Cal Sr., probably because he did for years. He spoke of not just a "how," but also the "why" to everything, underscoring the common sense involved in every action.
With his older brother standing silent at shortstop on the miniature field, Bill cited his father as the source for their wisdom as well as Cal's identity as not only an All-Star, but also a hero.
"Would Cal have become a major-league player? Yes. Would he have had a great career? Yes," Bill asked and answered. "But would he have been the Iron Man? No."
The two discussed creating a double play and Bill described it as the simplest of five-step acts - "catch, throw, catch, throw, catch."
One brother fed the other an underhand relay, and Cal threw an easy chest-high toss to first base.
"You look like you still play shortstop," Bill complimented his older brother.
"I might have to," answered Cal, maybe giving away something for tonight.
Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez starts at shortstop tonight, but AL manager Joe Torre has hinted heavily that Ripken should the centerpiece of the evening. Torre was in the visitors dugout the night Ripken ended his consecutive-game streak at 2,632. He will be there when Ripken appears in his final game on Sept. 30 at Yankee Stadium. Might Torre, who appreciates The Moment, permit Ripken to move to shortstop for one inning?
"I don't know about that," said Ripken, laughing. "I had trouble getting back out there when Davey [Johnson] put me there in Atlanta [in 1997]."
Though Ripken's arrival may have surprised everyone at the clinic, about 100 people clustered around the tunnel from which Ripken would reappear afterward. If Ripken signed one autograph, he would be smothered. The decision was made to make a run for it.
"Cal! Cal!! This way, Cal!"
And Ripken weaved right, dodged left, then cut back right toward what he hoped would be a door allowing him to cross the street to Safeco Field without being overtaken by a tsunami of pen-waving, paper-shoving autograph seekers. At 40, Ripken can still cut against the grain.
"Follow the big man."
No, not Cal. The big man was some security type leading a huffing, puffing human chain through the Stadium Exhibition Center. Finally, a breakout.
Ripken, several security guards, publicist John Maroon and a small number of media hit the door and kept jogging past gawkers and across the street, braking only for the Safeco Field gates. Inside, Ripken made a right turn toward the clubhouse, as batting practice was 90 minutes away.
Ripken touched them all after taking four rounds of swings - ESPN, Fox and Major League Baseball all got a turn. He and Gwynn became a traveling show. Ripken had heard most of the questions before and had answered much the same. But while on the field during batting practice, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher and former teammate Curt Schilling got to him.
"Curt was the only one who said something that made me kind of well up," said Ripken. "Probably because he talked about my father.
"He made a point to tell me what kind of influence my dad had on him and what he had taken from watching me and my career. I guess that had meaning to me because Eddie [Murray] meant the same to me - serving as an example of what my father's teachings were about and making an impression without consciously taking me under his wing."