End of a long Orioles line

Connection: From Brooks Robinson to Jim Palmer to Eddie Murray, fans have embraced the O's best. Tonight, they bid farewell to a final link in the chain.

The Retirement Of Cal Ripken

October 06, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

And so it draws to a close.

No more "big, round numbers" to chase, no more seasons to anticipate.

One more time, the reception he has come to know and many of the faces he has come to recognize during the past 21 years will touch Cal Ripken tonight at Camden Yards. Many of the younger ones attending will celebrate the end of a Hall of Fame career, while many of their elders will see it not only as the completion of a playing life, but also of a lineage.

The feelings have already confronted him. Ripken says he has made peace with his decision. At the same time, he has been amazed by the emotion he hears and sees at the park every day.

"I'm not sad that I'm leaving," he said between games of yesterday's day-night doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. "I've had a lot of people cry in front of me. Fans who say, `Please don't go. One more year. It's not going to be the same without you. I find myself consoling them. I say, `It's going to be OK. I'm all right.' It's funny how those emotions play with you."

This place has always embraced its heroes as one of its own. Ripken's status as a native made the bond only stronger.

"A big part of it is the thought, `He's one of us. He belongs to Baltimore,' " said Orioles broadcaster and former teammate Mike Flanagan. "That can't be manufactured or bought. It's real."

Flanagan saw this town embrace Brooks Robinson, then Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray.

"When you play a long time, you're never thinking about the end," said Palmer, who threw more innings, more games, more shutouts and more wins than any other Orioles pitcher. "You're thinking about what do I have to do in the next moment to stay at this level of performance. Cal has always been able to do that. What do I have to do to be a good player at 36? ... at 38? ... at 40?

"You never really think about not going back out there."

Except Ripken has. The Iron Man says he could have walked away two months ago but is glad he remained to feel the appreciation that has showered him at every stop in both leagues.

Having once hoped for a career like Robinson's, he has achieved satisfaction.

"My point of reference at the time was Brooks Robinson. He was the model," said Ripken, who idolized No. 5 much the same way a generation has embraced his No. 8.

"He was the guy who played with the same team and was there all those years. To have any kind of career, something like his career would be the height of accomplishment. I knew I wanted to play baseball and I wanted to play it for a long time."

Robinson retired in 1977, Murray's Rookie of the Year season.

Mark Belanger roamed shortstop at Memorial Stadium from 1965 to 1981.

Palmer, the only Oriole to play in all six of the team's World Series, retired in 1984, one year after the Orioles' last world championship and Ripken's first MVP season.

Murray played 13 seasons in Baltimore, driving in 100 runs five times before being traded after the '88 season and leaving Ripken as the team's most prominent figure.

Mike Mussina's ascendance suggested an heir apparent, but stalled contract negotiations and free agency brought about his defection last November. As Ripken walks away from a rebuilding club bruised by four straight losing seasons, the thread will break for the first time in more than 40 years.

It was Robinson's franchise record of 2,896 games Ripken eclipsed May 6. The ultimate "gamer" finishes tonight's work having played in more games than anyone else in the sport's history except Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Murray and Stan Musial. His legend is indelibly defined by 2,131 and 2,632 rather than hits, home runs or RBIs, though only 17 players have managed more RBIs, 12 more hits, 11 more doubles and 10 more total bases.

Baltimore remains a place where a guy can write sports for the News American, become the Orioles' official scorer, then grow up to become a club official.

Wednesday night, Bill Stetka, now Orioles director of public relations, sat with Ripken at his corner locker until after midnight. Stetka grew up in Bel Air, rival to Ripken's Aberdeen, and has seen him from many sides: as a seeming innocent early in his career, as the symbol for his franchise and his sport and as a role model with a sense for the power it represents. Stetka watched him at third base and shortstop, but also saw him speak with stricken children in the solitude of the team's video room or underneath the dugout.

"I will always remember that," Stetka said a little haltingly. "He did it almost daily, each time making that child or adult feel like the most important person in the world."

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