- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

SEATTLE The hair, what is left of it, is much shorter, much grayer and much thinner. The boyish grin, however, remains, as does his passion for the game of baseball.

And it's been that way ever since Cal Ripken first appeared in an All-Star Game 18 years ago.

"My very first one, at old Comiskey Park in Chicago [in 1983], the excitement of being there for the first time," the Baltimore Orioles third baseman recalled yesterday, on the eve of his 19th and final All-Star Game. "I was nervous like I have never been nervous before, and I was excited like I have never been excited before."

He's no longer the 22-year-old youngster with the wide eyes, amazed to be in the company of players like Jim Rice and Reggie Jackson. He's the 40-year-old man with the reflective look on life, proud to be in the company of first-time All-Stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Eric Milton.

"I started out as the youngest guy, with many veteran players, and feeling scared and nervous," Ripken said. "To actually see a transition of younger players come in and make their mark, and now I am probably the oldest in the locker room, that is a really cool evolution."

The experience isn't lost on Ripken's first-time teammates, such as Milton, the Minnesota Twins' left-hander and former University of Maryland star.

"I can remember when I was going to Maryland was when he broke the streak," Milton said. "I remember sitting in my dorm room watching it and hoping that I could play in the same venue as him some day. To be on this All-Star team with him, it's something special."

That Ripken speaks so fondly of the time he spends with younger players should come as no surprise. He learned the game of baseball from those who came before him, most notably his father, the late Cal Ripken Sr. And he plans to devote the majority of his post-retirement time in the coming years to teaching the game through his youth program in Aberdeen, Md.

"My mission and my job after baseball is to continue to try to influence kids and kids in baseball at the grassroots level," Ripken said yesterday upon receiving a check for $100,000 from baseball commissioner Bug Selig. "We will try to pass on the passion of the game, the philosophy and the teaching that my dad taught me. Those are my plans."

He even hinted at the prospect of managing a major league team some day.

"At some point you want to test your experience at the highest level," Ripken said. "I can't tell you what the highest level means at this moment. When we get the kids out of the house, off to college and they don't need you anymore, I might have a need to test my expertise in some way."

For now, he'll soak in the experience of his farewell tour, one that began last month when he announced his pending retirement but one that will gain steam this week with his last All-Star Game appearance.

Everyone wants a piece of Ripken in Seattle. There's the news conference with Selig and San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn, who's also retiring at the end of the season. There are his teammates inside the American League locker room, who all want to share one last moment with baseball's Iron Man. And there are the fans, the crowd of nearly 50,000 that will jam itself into every crevice of Safeco Field tonight.

Sure, they will be there to recognize the record eight Seattle Mariners participating in the midsummer classic. But it's also safe to assume one of the evening's loudest ovations will come when Ripken trots out toward the first-base line as the No. 8 batter in the American League's starting lineup.

"I think it's going to be a celebration of baseball," New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams said. "It's going to be hard to see him leave as a player, but I think his work ethic and the things that he has done for the game are going to remain. He's going to be a part of baseball forever."

The 3,000 hits, the 400 home runs, the two MVP awards and the 19 All-Star selections will all be recorded in the history books. The 2,632 consecutive games played, however, will be his legacy.

"He meant so much to the game. I think what you saw Cal Ripken do in our lives you won't ever see again," said 2001 Hall of Fame electee Kirby Puckett, the AL's honorary captain. "I don't think there's anybody that's going to break that record."

Said Gwynn, who was added to the NL's All-Star roster but won't play because of injury: "He doesn't want to get patted on the back for it, but we are going to. There's nobody else that has done what he's done. As much as we would all like to think we have left our mark on the game, Cal is the one guy that did it every day."

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