Final salute to Ripken

Fans, dignitaries gather for last game of Orioles' Iron Man

Uniform number retired

The Retirement Of Cal Ripken

October 07, 2001|By Jay Apperson | By Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The mayor named a street after him. A former president called him the best running story in baseball. A sell-out throng cheered his every move, with flashbulbs sparkling in the twilight sky.

And when the ceremonies were done, Cal Ripken Jr. grabbed his mitt and a ball, and loosened up for one last game.

Ripken, the homegrown Iron Man who became the greatest Oriole of his generation and a record-breaking ambassador for the national pastime, played for the final time last night before a loving gathering of Baltimore baseball fans.

The Orioles retired his uniform number 8 and unveiled plans to build a statue in his likeness. He was lauded by former teammates, such as Jim Palmer, and - in a series of video tributes - by competitors, such as Roger Clemens, and by David Letterman, who contributed a Top Ten List of Ripken career highlights.

After 21 seasons and 3001 games, the 41-year-old left his playing days behind in a night that was a tribute to his accomplishments on the field and a salute to the determined way he achieved them.

"Cal became the symbol for the American work ethic and the symbol for the American working man," said Bud Selig, baseball commissioner.

Former President Bill Clinton, who strode across orange carpet during the pre-game ceremony, called Ripken "the kind of man every father would like his son to grow up to be."

No one needed to convince Jim Hunter, a fan from Eldersburg, that Ripken set the right example. Hunter, who came to the ballpark with two daughters, a son and a sign that read "THANKS FOR THE GR8 MEMORIES," said, "Some of the stars today, I don't think they realize what good role models they can be for the kids. Some of them forget. Cal never forgot."

Since June 19, when he announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, Ripken's way has been celebrated by fans across the country. It started in Chicago, where the White Sox marked his last game there with a ceremony and a gift: a chair from old Comiskey Park.

Victory lap

Similar ceremonies were held as Ripken ran a victory lap around the baseball world. When he rediscovered his hitting stroke and began slamming home runs, opposing fans stood and cheered. When he mined his flair for the dramatic by homering in his final All-Star game, the sporting world smiled, approving.

Along the way, however, the season was disrupted. First, a train derailment and fire forced games to be postponed at Camden Yards. Then, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 - and baseball went dark. The dates for Ripken's last home appearance and final game were changed.

When play resumed, the Ripken celebration continued. There was the gift of another seat, this one from Fenway Park in Boston. Sterling silver at his last game in New York's Yankee Stadium.

And, finally, Baltimore's turn to toast its own.

When the time came, weather more suited for football than baseball couldn't chill the enthusiasm. Neither a late-season slump, which at one point left Ripken hitless through 33 at-bats, nor the Orioles' lackluster fourth-place record could dim the excitement surrounding Ripken's final appearance as a player.

The game meant nothing in the standings. The night meant everything to Baltimore baseball followers.

`We will never forget'

Robert Morningstar, 37, of Essex, wore a plastic helmet adorned with a Ripken bobblehead, an American flag and a sign reading "Ripken 8, We will never forget." He blew into a tube, and it furled and unfurled like a party favor.

He said he paid $125 for his ticket but wouldn't have missed the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Cal's been here for us every day," he said.

The pre-game celebration was in the works since July, with details held in secret. Orioles officials wanted to match the electricity of Sept. 6, 1995, when Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive game to break Lou Gehrig's record.

Last night was, in many ways, a salute to Ripken's family.

His mother, Vi, threw out the first pitch. His late father, Cal Sr. - the coach and manager who tirelessly taught the do-it-right philosophy dubbed "The Oriole Way" - was honored with a plaque in the home team's dugout. The son received a portrait of the father, commissioned by Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos.

Statue planned

The Orioles presented an oversized check for $1 million to the youth baseball academy under construction in his hometown of Aberdeen. A sketch for an 8-foot statue of Ripken, to be stationed at Camden Yards, was unveiled.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said Lee Street, near the stadium, would be renamed Ripken Way.

Some of the biggest roars went to figures from the Orioles' past. Hall of Fame announcer Chuck Thompson called Cal Sr. "as hard-nosed as a man ever gets." Earl Weaver, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray announced that Ripken's No. 8 would be retired.

When the pre-game ceremony ended, Ripken warmed up by playing catch with teammate Jeff Conine. A few minutes later, he trotted to third base to take his position for the first inning - but his teammates stayed in the dugout.

He was joined on the field, instead, by former teammates Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, Rick Dempsey and others who were in the starting lineup on Aug. 12, 1981 - Ripken's first start as an Oriole.

Curtain call

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Ripken came to bat for the last time. He tipped his cap to the roaring crowd. He flied out but was coaxed from the dugout for a curtain call.

He touched his hand to his heart and waved to the fans.

The final tally on Ripken's achievements will read: one World Series ring, two Gold Gloves, two All-Star game Most Valuable Player awards, two American League Most Valuable Player awards, 19 All-Star games, more than 400 home runs and more than 3,000 hits.

And 3,001 games played - including 2,632 in a row.

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