Future and past cross paths for a night Rising stars and veterans share a stellar moment

July 10, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA -- Just as the absence of Kirby Puckett and the presence of the soon-to-retire Ozzie Smith proved to be discomfiting for some of the major-league All-Stars who rely on their sense of immortality, a sea of first-time All-Stars lent a comforting feeling.

Frank Thomas, the All-Star first baseman of the Chicago White Sox, said of Puckett, the 10-time All-Star outfielder who is disabled with glaucoma: "He's one of those special guys. It's not the same without him." (Thomas, meanwhile, took himself out of the game because of a sore foot.)

"It's sad about Kirby, and we miss him and all the guys who are here most of the time," agreed Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds, referring not only to Puckett, but the other injured and absent players, such as Matt Williams and Tony Gwynn. "But to have the new guys here, the up-and-comers, that keeps it kind of fresh."

Such an example of baseball's ability to revitalize itself afield is found in the fresh face and youthful disposition of Alex Rodriguez, the phenomenal 20-year-old shortstop for Seattle.

Rodriguez is one of 20 first-time All-Stars this year, thanks to an incredible first half in which he batted .336 and matched his hero, Cal Ripken, in home runs (17) and RBIs (65).

"He's a terrific player," said Ripken, the starter at shortstop in the 67th All-Star Game last night despite suffering a broken nose in a mishap during a team photo session. "No one was smart enough to project the kind of numbers he is putting up now, the kind of maturity he is showing already in his career. He's doing it like he's been in the league five, 10 years."

Rodriguez's numbers are all the more impressive if you consider that the shortstop, who will turn 21 on July 27, is 15 years younger than Ripken.

"It's very, very awesome to be in this situation, just because you don't know how many more years Cal is going to go on and this is it for Ozzie," said Rodriguez, the embodiment of a starry-eyed fan.

"It's a combination of talking to the future, players you are going to be playing with, like Chipper Jones, guys who have been around forever, like Cal and Barry and Ozzie."

"It's very flattering, to have an impact on players and how they play the game," Ripken said. "It's kind of weird, to me, but I've had a long enough career that some people who are coming in feel that way towards me.

"But I can assure them they shouldn't be in awe. I'm exactly the way they are, and they're going to be in this position one day. They're going to know what I'm talking about."

Larkin does know, but he wants to know how he got to the veteran leadership role so quickly. After all, wasn't it just yesterday that he was the starry-eyed youth, worshipfully in awe of Ripken and Smith? "It wasn't that long ago," Larkin said with a smile.

Both Smith and Ripken must have wondered, too, about the years sneaking up on them and where the inexorable march will take them.

"I'm sure it's inevitable that the time comes when you can't come to the All-Star Game, when you can't play anymore," said Ripken. But there is little fear, just gratitude. "To have come so many times, I feel blessed," Ripken said.

So does Smith, even though he answered an All-Star roll call for the final time last night, and now faces a second half of the season on the Cardinals' bench. "I don't think it's a time to be sad," the 41-year-old Smith said. "It's a time for celebration, really. I had 19 other good years in baseball. I wish it could last forever, but it doesn't. It's time to move on to something else."

Last night, Alex Rodriguez was drinking in all that he saw, too, building experiences in a file others such as Ripken and Smith, even Larkin, started penning years before Rodriguez dared dream of sharing the field with their likes. Rodriguez isn't ready to let any one of them go, yet.

"They still have some time to do even better things," Rodriguez said. "And I need to improve before I even face the possibility of replacing them."

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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