Richard Justice

#TBT: Ripken wins HR Derby, ASG MVP in '91

#TBT: Ripken wins HR Derby, ASG MVP in '91

All these years later, Cal Ripken Jr. remembers rounding the bases thinking, "Now how did I do that?" Why not? Perhaps that's the most reasonable explanation. Sometimes, even the all-time greats do things that baffle themselves.

Let's set the scene. Ripken was having perhaps his greatest individual season when he got to the 1991 All-Star Game in Toronto, 24 years ago Thursday.

He'd spent the previous offseason working on mechanical adjustments to his swing that Orioles manager Frank Robinson had given him. And when the season started, everything clicked. He was hitting .348 with a 1.001 OPS, 21 doubles, two triples, 18 homers and a .405 on-base percentage at the break.

And he carried that hot start right into Toronto. Ripken won the Home Run Derby on Monday in a runaway, hammering 12 in 22 swings. Paul O'Neill was the next-closest guy with five.

"I just remembered telling myself to slow everything down, to take a nice easy swing," Ripken said. "And the first one went out of the park."

Hitters sometimes say they don't want to participate in the Derby for fear of messing up their swing.

"I never agreed with that," Ripken said. "Guys take part in a Home Run Derby called batting practice every day of the season. I was fearful of not doing anything different than I'd done during the season. It was like easy batting practice."

During the Derby, Ripken got into one of those zones in which the ball jumped off the bat, bringing fans to their feet roaring with approval and awe. He hit seven straight pitches out of the park at one point and remembers American League teammate Joe Carter waiving a white towel in a gesture of both respect and amazement.

"It was like everything you did felt magical," Ripken said. "I didn't want to take time out to analyze anything. You just want to go with the flow. I hit a couple of balls off the upper deck, and I'd never been up there before. It was very cool seeing the reaction of my teammates. There was genuine excitement."

And then in the ninth of his 19 All-Star Game appearances, Ripken stepped into the batter's box in the bottom of the third inning after two other future Hall of Famers, Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs, had singled.

Ripken was facing Montreal right-hander Dennis Martinez, a friend and former Baltimore teammate. When the count went to 2-1, Ripken was thinking one thing.

"Dead red," he said.

Translation: fastball. Only Martinez, probably thinking the same thing, threw his buddy a breaking pitch. Somehow -- and this is the part that amazes Ripken to this day -- he adjusted.

He drilled the pitch to center, right over the head of yet another guy headed for the Hall of Fame, Tony Gwynn, for a three-run home run.

"I just reacted to the pitch," Ripken said. "That's just being in the zone. I adjusted and somehow hit it."

He followed up his Home Run Derby championship by being named MVP of the All-Star Game, before resuming a regular season in which he went on to win his second AL MVP Award. (Garret Anderson is the only other player to win both the Home Run Derby and be named the All-Star Game MVP. He did it in 2003.)

Ripken laughs now about his early All-Star appearances -- the first was in 1983 -- when he was the young guy awed by sharing a clubhouse with Jim Rice and Fred Lynn and others he'd watched on television. At some point, he became one of the older players the kids were in awe of.

"One of the cool parts of baseball is this constant changing of the guard," he said. "I was always the younger one. I stood back and watched. All of a sudden, you look around and there are a bunch of guys younger than you coming in. It seemed to happen overnight. I would always notice player birthdays on the scoreboard. I was born in 1960. When you come in, there are guys born in the '50s. Then the '60s. When you start to see guys born in the '70s and '80s, it makes an impact. When you first notice, it's alarming. Like, 'Whoa.'"

There were years he was dog tired at the break and other years when everything seemed to come easy. But there was never a moment when he didn't feel blessed to be included when baseball gathered the best of the best in one place each summer.

That 1991 All-Star Game had 17 future Hall of Famers, including Ripken and AL manager Tony La Russa, taking part, and it is a reminder of the breathtaking array of talent on the field on a single evening.

"When you get a chance to go once, you're really excited by how special it is and you have a desire to go back," Ripken said. "You have a chance to be a teammate with all these great players. I think that experience of being in the locker room with those guys is as exciting as the game itself. There's a surge of adrenaline to be included. In my early All-Star Games, I was careful. I didn't want to mess up. But you eventually get to the point where you're just going to be yourself, and you want to be part of it. It's one of those special things about a baseball season."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.