Ichiro takes round-trip to All-Star history

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was just one flight of the baseball. Just one swoosh of Ichiro Suzuki's magic bat. Just one laser beam streaking off toward the place where batted balls live on forever.

But when everything else fades from one more All-Star Game victory for the American League -- in what is beginning to feel like a never-ending series of American League victories -- this was the moment that all the Wite-Out in California won't be able to erase.

This was the tale of the amazing Ichiro, gliding around the bases on a journey into All-Star history.

This was the tale of a suddenly defenseless outfielder by the name of Junior Griffey, watching a baseball that was determined to pinball around the funkiest right field in America until the man who hit it had orbited the bases.

This was the tale of the first inside-the-park home run ever hit in an All-Star Game -- a round-tripper that would become the defining moment Tuesday night in a 5-4 game that was won by the team that always wins the All-Star Game.

Think of all the sprint champs who have played in this game. How could Rickey Henderson never have hit an inside-the-parker in an All-Star Game? Or Maury Wills? Or Lou Brock?

Think of all the ballparks this game has been played in. Think of all the baseballs that have clattered off the walls in the most misshaped outfields in history. In Fenway. And Wrigley. And the Polo Grounds.

How could it be possible that none of those parks had ever manufactured the one classically goofy bounce it takes to produce a moment like the one we witnessed Tuesday night at AT&T Park?

We have no idea how events can conspire like that to keep something like this from happening for more than 70 years -- and then, in one fluky collision of events, it happens right before your eyes.

But we're grateful now, because the sight of this man legging out this inside-the-parker was one we'll never forget.

"You know, in batting practice tonight, I saw some balls take some weird hops off that fence out there," said Ichiro's fellow AL center fielder, Torii Hunter. "And I said to myself, 'If anyone ever hits one off one of those corners out there, somebody's going to get an inside-the-parker.' Well, here came Ichiro."

Yeah, here came Ichiro, all right. He wriggled into place in the batter's box in the fifth inning Tuesday night. He already had two hits on this night -- one fewer than he'd gotten in all his other All-Star at-bats (all 15 of them) combined.

But this hit -- the third hit -- would be the one that would keep on traveling for the rest of his career.

He smoked a Chris Young fastball deep into the ionized night, way way way back in distant right-center field. In a lot of parks on either side of the Pacific, it was a ball that would have come down in somebody's popcorn cup. But not this one.

Instead, it splattered off one of the All-Star Game banners stretched out across the wall in the deepest part of the yard -- a banner sneakily hiding one of the trickiest angles in the entire ballpark.

So Griffey went motoring off in the direction he thought it would carom -- only to have the baseball fake left, and go right, and hop on off into No Man's Land. OK, make that Inside The Park Land.

Imagine what was going through the heads of these two men -- two of the most gifted and charismatic players who have ever played baseball -- in that moment.

We bet you'll correctly guess exactly what one of them was thinking, anyway.

Asked what went through his mind, Griffey had to laugh.

"Well," he answered, "it's a four-letter word."

He laughed one more time.

"And there was an 'Oh' in front of it."

It didn't matter. [Ichiro] flies, man. Even a perfect throw wouldn't have gotten him.

-- NL second baseman Chase Utley

Meanwhile, the man in the midst of circumnavigating those bases had a slightly different reaction.

"I thought it was going to go over the fence," Ichiro would say afterward. "And when it didn't, I was really bummed."

Then again, at the time, what did he know about the unique thrill of legging out an inside-the-park homer? All those games (1,042 of them on this side of the Pacific, 951 on the other side). All those hits (1,482 of them in North America, 1,278 more in Japan). And none of them -- not one -- had included an inside-the-park home run. How could that be?

But the sight of him legging out this inside-the-parker was one that filled many of his fellow All-Stars with awe.

"One thing I noticed," said Josh Beckett, the man who would become the winning pitcher, thanks to this homer, "is, he wasn't as tired after he scored as most people are when they hit a triple."

"I think it took him like maybe 5.2 seconds (to make it around the bases)," Hunter said. "All I know is, I looked up, I saw the ball roll and he was at home plate already."

All right, not quite. By our stopwatch, it took him 15 seconds to round those bases. Then again, once Griffey had finished scrambling after the ball and making a frantic throw that cleared the heads of two potential cutoff men, there wasn't much need for the guy to hurry. He eased in standing up.

"It didn't matter," said one of those potential cutoff men, NL second baseman Chase Utley. "He flies, man. Even a perfect throw wouldn't have gotten him."

Of course, we'll never know if that's really true or not. But it sounds good, now that we've seen how this turned out.

And because that was how it turned out, this game was never the same. A 1-0 National League lead had just turned into a 2-1 American League lead. That soon became a 3-1 American League lead, thanks to a home run by Carl Crawford -- a guy whose team (the Devil Rays) had registered one previous All-Star hit in franchise history.

And by the ninth inning, that lead was 5-2, with two outs and nobody on. Seattle's unhittable J.J. Putz (he of the 0.88 ERA) was on the mound, about to close it out. The National League hadn't won one of these All-Star Games since the Clinton administration (1996, if you'd lost track). And this game looked just about as over as the Ice Age.

Whoops. Ya never know. Dmitri Young chopped a two-out infield single off Brian Roberts' glove. Then Alfonso Soriano -- a guy who was 0-for-9 lifetime off Putz -- inside-outed an opposite-field home run. And all of a sudden, it was 5-4.

Then, in the historic First All-Star Battle of the J.J.'s, Putz walked J.J. Hardy. And you could feel something stirring.

Not once, in this whole season had Putz allowed three straight hitters to reach base via a hit and/or walk. But he'd just done it in this game, with two outs in the ninth.

So the next thing you knew, the next closer in line, Francisco Rodriguez, was marching in and issuing two more walks. And it was hard to believe, but the bases were loaded and the potential winning run was on second base.

It's one (game) that I'll never forget. The past six years, I never had an All-Star Game that I really thought I gave it my all or was able to give it my all. So I'm really happy. It was a fun All-Star Game.

-- Ichiro

Rodriguez swore he wasn't worried -- just trying to make hitters hit his pitch, not their pitch -- with two outs, he said. But that didn't mean his teammates weren't getting antsy.

"That was scary, man," Hunter laughed. "That put fear in my heart. I'm telling you."

But two pitches later, K-Rod pulled the plug on all that fear, getting Aaron Rowand to fly out to deep right field. And it was safe for Ichiro to march back out onto the field and collect his MVP award, after the second three-hit game by an AL leadoff hitter in All-Star history (joining Rickey Henderson in 1982).

"It's one (game) that I'll never forget," Ichiro said, carrying on valiantly even though he'd been forced by MVP duties to cancel his postgame restaurant reservation. "The past six years, I never had an All-Star Game that I really thought I gave it my all or was able to give it my all. So I'm really happy. It was a fun All-Star Game."

But not only was it fun. It might have been the most spectacular All-Star Tuesday anybody had ever had in the history of All-Star Tuesdays. The heck with Carl Hubbell. The heck with Ted Williams' game-winning homer.

Because Ichiro did more on this day than merely wipe out that lifelong inside-the-park schneid and add another trophy for his memorabilia room. He also all but settled a five-year contract extension with the Mariners worth close to $100 million.

Now that's a big day.

"That's a really good day for him," said Hunter, a prospective free agent this winter, and one who didn't seem too despondent that the potential center-field free-agent pool had just shrunk by one. "Give me that deal, and I'd be happy, too."

Hey, we bet. But will he celebrate with an inside-the-park homer? That's the question.

"If that's what it takes, then I'm going to run," Hunter laughed. "Even if I get a single, I'm going to try for an inside-the-parker."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.