Finale just latest big Baltimore baseball party

Occasion: Tonight's game will go down with the 1954 opener, World Series games, All-Star Games and others in city lore.

The Retirement Of Cal Ripken

October 06, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Tonight's game bidding farewell to Cal Ripken is the latest in a half-century of signature contests that have given fans the chance to revel, and to recollect.

This time, people will gather to watch the 41-year-old third baseman suit up and say goodbye.

Some see the game between the Orioles and Boston Red Sox as a chance to make a few bucks on memorabilia; others, as a moment worth dropping a few bucks to share a part of a collective memory.

A sellout crowd in excess of 49,000 is expected at Oriole Park for ceremonies scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m. Tickets were being offered in yesterday's classified section of The Sun for as much as $500 apiece.

"We've celebrated so many things with Cal through the years, and this is kind of the culmination of that," said Bill Stetka, Orioles public relations director, recalling those magic nights in 1995 when Ripken tied - and broke - Lou Gehrig's record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. He'd become the Iron Man with No. 2,131, going on to play 501 more games, before finally sitting against the New York Yankees with a record 2,632.

Some fans no doubt were present for the tie, tiebreaker and streak-ender, and plan to attend tonight to help Ripken close out his 21-year career. Originally, his season would have ended in New York, and his last home game would have been played on Sept. 23, but the terrorist attacks earlier in the month altered the baseball schedule, along with everything else.

Many who arrive tonight for the high-profile game will be security-conscious. "Obviously, since Sept. 11, security has been increased," said Stetka. "But it will be increased a bit more this weekend, in terms of numbers."

Special credentials will be required of both Orioles employees and the more than 600 members of the media expected.

How extraordinary is the occasion? The U.S. Post Office is even providing a commemorative Ripken postmark, which will be available at Camden Yards.

The Orioles have promised a night of heartfelt hoopla, but are keeping the details hush-hush. Whether presidents, past or present, might attend is a matter of speculation.

Years from now, people will want to say they were at Camden Yards tonight, just like some still brag about being among the 46,354 at the 1954 home opener that welcomed Baltimore back to the big leagues. Or the sellout crowd of 48,829 who rooted the American League on to a 4-3 victory in the 1958 All-Star Game, in which Orioles left-hander Billy O'Dell was named the event's first MVP

The only other midseason classic played in Baltimore, in 1993, ended with the hosts booing the winning AL team for failing to use Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina in the game.

Emotions were also mixed among the 50,700 who saw the fond finale at Memorial Stadium, in 1991, a moving This Is Your Life for a concrete edifice. The following spring, the mood was festive among the overflow crowd that helped christen Oriole Park in a 2-0 victory over Cleveland and then-manager Mike Hargrove.

Greater still are the memories of those who witnessed the two home games of the World Series in 1983, against Philadelphia, the last year the Orioles won it all and the only championship in which Ripken played a part. But the club's (and the crowds') finest moments may have occurred in 1966 and 1970, the World Series victories that many say were the Orioles' best.

"This is a team sport, and the greatest moments of [Orioles] history have been when the team wins," said Jim Bready, Baltimore author and baseball historian.

Tops on his list is April 15, 1954 - the day the Orioles brought home major-league baseball after a 52-year drought. A pre-game parade drew 350,000 people, who lined city streets in their Sunday best to cheer players, floats, 19 brass bands and 30 girls dressed like baseballs. At the brand-new horseshoe on 33rd Street, Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch and the Orioles defeated Chicago, 3-1.

"It was the biggest moment in the city's history, hands down," said Bready. "Not to go religious, but some people used the word `epiphany.'"

Close behind, he says, is the 1966 Series, a four-game sweep of favored Los Angeles that the Orioles clinched at home. When center fielder Paul Blair curled his glove around the final out in a 1-0 victory - a record third straight shoutout - third baseman Brooks Robinson leaped three feet in the air. Thus began an all-night gala. Fans danced through downtown streets chanting, "Birds! Birds! Birds!" Cops watched from patrol cars festooned with orange-and-black flags. The bell above City Hall rang 66 times. And burlesque queen Blaze Starr stopped her show on The Block to wave an Orioles pennant.

"The celebration was spontaneous," Bready recalled. "Everyone just let it fly. There was no destruction, either, except for a produce truck on Baltimore Street that was stripped bare as the air was filled with cabbages."

Robinson called the '66 Series "the biggest moment of my life." Bigger than the 1970 Series, a near-sweep of Cincinnati marked by his backhand stabs, timely hitting and MVP award. Bigger, even, than the city's tribute to him upon his retirement in 1977, he says.

He knows what awaits Ripken tonight.

"My `day' was unbelieveable," he said. "It was Sept. 18, hot as can be, and 50,000 people were there for an outpouring of love. Doug DeCinces [Robinson's replacement] picked up third base and gave it to me. Beautiful."

One fan eager to share the emotion of Ripken's moment is Cindy Pivar, who has collected Ripken coins, Coke bottles, beer steins and plates. "He just inspires me," said the 39-year-old from Union Bridge. "I will probably cry the whole game."

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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