Our lives lighted up for years, we're left with happy reflections

October 07, 2001|By DAN RODRICKS

I WON'T CLAIM to be the only one at Camden Yards who noticed; maybe some event coordinator planned it that way. But I'd like to note, in case it misses mention elsewhere, that while the official farewells commenced last evening for Cal Ripken, the sun made one final splash against the old warehouse beyond right field to the east, then dropped exquisitely and peacefully into the western horizon. Sunset was the right time to say goodbye.

Ripken sat through the opening ceremonies, patiently and graciously listening to more of the songs of praise that have been the soundtrack of his life. Then he went out and played baseball one more time, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who noticed the details of his performance. You wanted to watch his every move and breath, to absorb them one last time, burn them into memory -- the way he runs to his position, the way he shags grounders, the way he curls his arm, then straightens it sharply with a throw to first, the way he swings his black bat in the on-deck circle. From now on, we'll only see it in video. There was a moon-high popup early in the game. Cal's ball. It seemed to take an hour to return to Earth, and when did it landed in the third baseman's glove, and he clutched it and flipped it into his bare hand as his jogged off the field.

The first time he came to bat he brought what must be his 3,000th stance to the box. Black batting gloves, fingers twitching like a piano player's, the hands low, under the "O" in "Orioles" across his chest. Swing, and a crack. It was the swing we've seen before but without the carrying power. Line drive to left, and out.

The second time, he drew two balls off the Red Sox pitcher, Cone, then seemed to grimace as he swung, as if he knew where the ball was going. A popup, another out, and a high flip of the bat behind home plate.

It didn't matter, of course. We just wanted to see Cal, one more time. We knew what he had accomplished. We didn't really need to see a homer. He's given us so much. We go way back with him. Back to when baseball was played in the old stadium in Ednor Gardens. The Ripken years overlapped those of Palmer and Murray, Flanagan and McGregor, Dempsey and Bumbry, the last time it was really good here. In the native tongue of Bawlmerese, Cal rhymed with "now." You got that from listening to the chants up in Section 34: "Come on, Cal. Put it in the bullpen now."

The image is fuzzy around the edges -- because the kind of videotape used is about four generations old now -- but you can still see Ripken, a splendid splinter at shortstop, reach for a line drive by Garry Maddox of the Phillies, clutch it and dance with it like a Little Leaguer on the turf at Veterans Stadium. That was the last time the Orioles won a World Series. We were all 18 years younger then. Cal was 23.

The Birds came down the turnpike and there were about 30,000 fans to meet them late on a Sunday night at Memorial Stadium, and it was a huge moment in the life of the city. And over the years Ripken was part of any baseball event that even came close to matching that one for emotion. In fact, he was the reason for most of them.

The teams that made playoff runs in the 1990s were great while they lasted, but, of course, they didn't last; they weren't built to last. They lacked the home-cooked chemistry of the teams that won earlier championships. There was something missing, and even as those '96 and '97 teams made pennant runs, a lot of people in this town faded as Orioles fans. But they kept a psychic connection to the team because of Cal. If he hadn't soured on the team -- enough to leave town when windows opened for him -- then we all had a civic duty to do the same.

That's huge in all this dissection: The fact that he never left us. Oprah left us. Mussina left us. Cal never left us. He was well-paid, of course. He got the Esskay contract a billion hot dogs ago. But he could have roamed. He could have become one of those four-team free agents, retiring last night in front of strangers in Ohio or Texas. But he didn't do that. Even when it seemed possible, it seemed impossible. He grew up an Orioles fan, just like everyone else around here, except with a slightly better view of the game. He wanted to become a Bird. He became one, stayed one. Baltimore wasn't a steppingstone. It was home. That goes a long way with people in this town. There are bigger cities, hipper cities, and we all know it, so we appreciate the star who sticks around, and Cal's our biggest example of that.

It didn't matter if he hit one last hit, one last homer.

But he came up in the eighth inning, his team down by three runs, and you knew this might be the last. You wished for more poetry. You remembered the night he broke Gehrig's consecutive-games record and the home run the president called from the broadcast booth.

You hoped for that. You hoped someone somewhere was yelling, "Come on, Cal. Put it in the bullpen now." It was 9:50 p.m., and again Ripken drew two balls off the Red Sox pitcher. Then he swung hard and ball shot straight in the air, another popup. Hundreds of cameras flashed. Hundreds of fans barked at the ball, "Get out of here!"

And the ball cooperated, landing in the net behind the backstop.

Ripken was still alive, still looking tall and lean and handsome in the batter's box. He swung at the next pitch and it soared into the sky. From my vantage it appeared to head for the roof of the downtown Wyndham hotel. But the ball died gently in the night, somewhere over center field, where the grounds crew had etched "8" in the grass.

Didn't matter. We'd seen enough -- long before last night.

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