SEATTLE - On the night when all of baseball gathered to thank Cal Ripken for the memories, the reluctant hero provided yet one more thrill.
Ripken upstaged Ichiro Suzuki, Barry Bonds and every other big name in the ballpark, hitting a home run and winning the MVP award in his final All-Star appearance to lead the American League over the Nationals 4-1 last night.
What began as a trip down memory lane - Ripken started at shortstop, at Alex Rodriguez's suggestion - wound up with him taking a glorious trip around the bases.
"It's just been a great deal of fun my whole career. The All-Star games, I've been able to go to a whole lot of them, but this is by far the most special," Ripken said.
His homer easily was the best moment in a game that saw Roger Clemens finally face Mike Piazza. There was no drama there, though someone was later hit by the shattered barrel of a bat - NL honorary manager Tommy Lasorda.
Derek Jeter and Magglio Ordonez connected for consecutive home runs as the AL won its fifth in a row. Suzuki, the most popular player in Seattle these days, singled and stole a base as the AL cut its deficit to 40-31-1.
But, it was Ripken's night.
At 40, Ripken supplanted Stan Musial as the oldest player to homer in an All-Star game. Ripken also became the first AL player to twice win the All-Star MVP trophy, his other coming in 1991 when he also homered.
After stepping out of the batter's box and waving his helmet to acknowledge a standing ovation, Ripken hit Chan Ho Park's first pitch of the third inning over the left-field fence.
"I swung and made good contact and the ball went out of the ballpark and I felt like I was flying around the bases," Ripken said.
Tony Gwynn, who will retire with Ripken after this season, applauded from the opposing dugout. NL pitcher Curt Schilling caught the moment on his camcorder and NL third baseman Chipper Jones clapped into his glove as Ripken rounded the bag that had been stamped with his No. 8.
Ever humble, Ripken had to be coaxed out of the dugout by the sellout crowd of 47,364 at Safeco Field for a curtain call.
Even a freight train running on the tracks beyond the center-field wall seemed to sound a tribute to baseball's old blue eyes - a two-horn blast right after the Baltimore third baseman homered.
"When he hit that ball, I said, 'Oh, wow!' " Gwynn said. "There's really only a couple of people in this game who could do that.
"It happened on his night," he said.
Later, the game was stopped as every All-Star player joined commissioner Bud Selig in a six-minute ceremony before the sixth inning to say goodbye to Ripken and Gwynn. Highlights of their careers were shown on the scoreboard, which flashed, "Thanks Cal and Tony."
"It's been a great run," Ripken told the fans.
Two years ago, in baseball's last All-Star lovefest, Ripken and Gwynn supported Ted Williams when he threw the first ball at Fenway Park.
A fitting farewell, for sure, for Ripken. Many credit him for saving baseball after a strike wiped out the 1994 World Series, punctuated by him breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record.
His brown hair now turned gray, Ripken played in his 18th All-Star game and spent the final innings watching with his son.
Gwynn, added as an honorary member, did not get to hit.
Right before the first pitch, Alex Rodriguez surprised his mentor by suggesting to Ripken that they switch positions for the first inning.
Rodriguez had to playfully shove Ripken toward a spot he had not played since Sept. 1, 1997.
"That started with A-Rod," AL manager Joe Torre said. "He came up with this idea and said, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'I think it's dynamite."'
In the second inning, Clemens and Piazza faced each other for the first time since last season's confrontations. Piazza missed the All-Star game after being beaned by Clemens, then had the Rocket throw the jagged barrel of a broken bat in his direction in the Subway Series.
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