SEATTLE - Perhaps everyone should have known that Cal Ripken would not go quietly into retirement. He has risen to the occasion time after time, so why would his last All-Star Game be any different?
Ripken came to Safeco Field to take his final All-Star bow last night, and left with another magic Ripken moment, breaking a scoreless tie with a third-inning home run that helped the American League score a 4-1 victory.
Baseball isn't usually about perfection, but how much closer can you get?
Ripken's second career All-Star home run ignited a three-homer attack that carried the American League to its fifth consecutive victory in the midsummer classic. So no one was surprised when he was rewarded with the game's Most Valuable Player trophy - the second of his impressive career.
He also was named All-Star MVP for his performance in the 1991 game in Toronto and is the first American League player to win that honor more than once.
The sellout crowd of 47,364 came to cheer an American League squad dominated by the first-place Seattle Mariners and the defending world champion New York Yankees, but the fans also were well aware that this their opportunity to pay a final All-Star tribute to Ripken and San Diego Padres superstar Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn was not on the active roster, so he did not get the chance to punctuate his final All-Star appearance as a player with some characteristic hitting heroics. He got his due, but it was clear from the start that the evening belonged to the Iron Man.
It started with a last-minute change in the American League infield alignment. Superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez took the field for the first inning and immediately traded positions with Ripken in a very public display of respect for the man who redefined the role of the shortstop in the modern era.
Rodriguez moved to shortstop in the second inning, symbolically following Ripken to the position that the Orioles' Iron Man inspired him to play.
It was the beginning of a very special evening for Ripken, whose offensive numbers in the first half (.240 average, four homers, 28 RBIs) didn't exactly make him an obvious All-Star. He played flawless defense and needed just one swing to add another major highlight to his illustrious career.
Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park replaced Johnson for the bottom of the third inning and threw just one pitch to Ripken, who pounced on a breaking ball and lined it into the bullpen behind left field for his second career All-Star home run.
"That's the kind of magic that Cal brings to the field, that he has brought to the field for 20 years or however long he's played," Johnson said. "It would have been very fitting if it ended up being a 1-0 ballgame and he got the game-winning home run."
The homer came 10 years and one day after a Ripken homer helped propel the American League to victory in the 1991 All-Star Game in Toronto and earned him All-Star MVP honors in the same season he won his second American League MVP trophy.
"That's a great feeling," said Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, "especially since he announced his retirement and came out and put up a shot like that. That's amazing. He is the man."
The sellout crowd of 47,364 cheered Ripken at every opportunity, right through the in-game ceremony honoring Ripken and retiring San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn at the start of the sixth inning.
"It's been a whirlwind," Ripken said. "It's been a great atmosphere, a great climate. I always thought the All-Star Game was a special time to celebrate baseball. It meant something special for our family to sit around and watch it on TV. This one I think maybe I came in with my eyes wider looking to take advantage of everything.
If it was a night for tugging the heartstrings, it was not without its lighter moments. National League third base coach Tom Lasorda inadvertently provided some comic relief when he was bowled over by a flying bat in the top of the sixth inning.
Lasorda was lucky that he wasn't seriously injured when Montreal Expos star Vladimir Guerrero's bat sawed off at the handle and hit the Hall of Fame manager in the midsection, but Lasorda played it for laughs. He doffed his cap for the cheering crowd and declined when superstar Barry Bonds came onto the field to offer him a chest protector.
To that point, it had been a very taut game. Yankees ace Roger Clemens retired all six batters he faced, leaving the game after retiring New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza to end the second inning. Johnson gave up only a leadoff single to Japanese sensation Ichiro Suzuki before retiring six in a row.
Ripken's homer stood as the only score until catcher Ivan Rodriguez padded the American League lead with an RBI single in the fifth. The National League managed just one hit through the first five innings and didn't get on the board until Jeff Kent led off the sixth with an opposite-field double and scored two outs later on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Klesko.
Though the National League lineup featured the two top home run hitters in the game - Bonds (39) and Arizona's Luis Gonzalez (35) - it was the American League that used the long ball to run its All-Star winning streak to five games.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and White Sox outfielder Magglio Ordonez opened the sixth inning with back-to-back homers off Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lieber to extend the AL lead to three runs.