Alex Rodriguez is blessed with a museum-worthy swing, an angler's snap of the wrist on his throws and an impeccable instinct for damage control. He needed all three of those special attributes to survive another trip to Seattle, for the 72nd All-Star Game in July 2001.
He deftly defused the hostility of Mariners fans with a heartfelt—not to mention ingenious—plan he had hatched a week earlier. He told American League manager Joe Torre about it, but few others. In the first inning, as spectators were getting comfortable in their seats at Safeco Field, the "home team" AL players jogged out to take their positions. Alex was the starting shortstop, and beside him, at third, was Cal Ripken Jr. This was Ripken's final All-Star Game—the 19th of a 20-year career—but his selection had been based more on sentiment than on merit. One of the greatest shortstops in baseball history, he had switched to third base before the 1997 season to accommodate a changing of the guard in Baltimore. Ripken was stirring the dirt around third with his cleats when Rodriguez walked over and nudged him ever so gently toward his old position.
"Here, this is yours," A-Rod said. "Why don't you go play an inning at short?"
Ripken looked at Torre in the dugout waving him over, saw the Seattle fans snapping photos, felt Rodriguez's glove on his back, noted the TV crews shooting the scene—and had one searing thought. "I didn't want to play short," he recalls. "There was a realization that I was miked and he was miked. I really wanted to tell him, Get out of here and stop bothering me with this."
Ripken had prepared himself to play third that night, not short, in front of millions of people. Cal and Alex were alike in their polish and poise, but they had another trait in common: Neither man ever wanted to look bad. "It's the focus, and no player wants to go out there, be unprepared and potentially be embarrassed," Ripken says. He had added length to his glove when he moved to third, to flag hot grounders to his right or left. And he knew the roomy webbing would make any fast-twitch double-play attempt from shortstop feel as if he were reaching into a mailbox for the ball.
Ripken looked at Alex in disbelief but knew what he had to do. As he walked over to short, he turned to AL starting pitcher Roger Clemens and yelled, "O.K., looks like you gotta strike everybody out."
Ripken wasn't tested at shortstop that inning, and he moved back to third base the next time the AL players took the field. "The deeper meaning was that it was a wonderful gesture," Ripken says. And, as he would later acknowledge, the switcheroo played well with the audience.
Everyone got what he needed. Ripken was rightly honored; the crowd got to savor an emotional moment; and Alex was feted for his generous spirit.
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Jeff Pearlman looks at A-Rod's seasons in Seattle with Ken Griffey Jr., at SI.com/bonus