It's the most recognizable digit in Baltimore.

Authorities said that didn't dissuade four young men from ripping Cal Ripken Jr.'s 3 1/2 -foot-tall aluminum number 8 off its base in front of Camden Yards Tuesday night, throwing it into the back of a gray pickup truck and parading it through the city.

The men, described in a police report as juiced up on alcohol, apparently got rowdy while stopped on the east side of Patterson Park, and someone called the police to complain. By then, Maryland Stadium Authority guards had flagged down passing police outside the ballpark, and detectives had reviewed a surveillance video showing four young men "pulling and kicking" the sculpture. They broadcast descriptions to patrol cars throughout the city.

An officer pulled up to the truck at Lombard Street and Ellwood Avenue about 12:45 a.m., an hour after the theft had occurred, saw "the Number 8 statue inside the rear of the Dodge pick up truck," according to the police report, and arrested the men.

It is a theft both brazen and unimaginable in a city where residents revere Ripken, the Aberdeen native who won two Most Valuable Awards, was selected to 19 All-Star teams and obliterated Lou Gehrig's record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games. The Orioles put the statue up in October 2001, a month after Ripken retired.

"Every day, I hear things on the news and I think, 'Who in the world would do something like that,' and I have no idea," Ripken's mother, Vi, said in a telephone interview. "Maybe they thought, 'We'll get attention if we do this.' I wouldn't even venture a guess as to what motivates people."

Baltimore police identified the suspects as Essex residents Matthew Rayner, 20, Jason Stoneburner, 19, and Patrick Reynolds, 18, and Baltimore resident Gary Parker, 19. Each was being charged with theft over $500 and destruction of property and was being processed through Central Booking late Wednesday afternoon, according to police.

Reynolds' father, James R. Reynolds, 60, said his son lives with him and had been spending Tuesday with friends whom he identified as the other three men under arrest. After a reporter told him that his son had been charged in the case, he said the younger Reynolds had never been in trouble before beyond some recent traffic tickets.

"What are these kids thinking?" Reynolds said, adding that his son has been to several Orioles games with relatives.

Asked if his son was a fan of Ripken's, he paused. "Apparently," he concluded.

The theft brings fresh attention to both the Orioles, who had clinched a 12th consecutive losing season in Boston only hours earlier, and to a city better known for its crime than for its baseball.

This is a city where in 1995 someone broke into the Babe Ruth Museum and made off with a baseball signed by Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and 20 other members of the 1934 American League All-Star team. Where someone once stole the 300-pound brass doors to the city courthouse, and someone else walked off with a 75-pound crab dressed as a chef in Roland Park. Police are still looking for whoever was responsible for stealing more than 100 light poles in 2006.

Police could not offer a motive for the latest theft, beyond saying it appeared to be a drunken prank. Michelle Ingrodi said she was at the Canton Market shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday and saw four men with a pickup truck asking people for information about statues, such as the big decorative fishes and crabs around the city.

Ingrodi, 35, said she saw rope in the back of the truck. "It seemed to me they were in some sort of competition," she said. "It seemed they needed to get something and get it really quickly. I remember thinking as I walked back home, that these kids were going to get caught doing something really stupid."

Ripken's number 8 is one of several 42-inch-high sculptures on the Edward Bennett Williams Plaza at the end of Eutaw Street near the north entrance to the ballpark, next to the Sports Legends Museum. Similar statues honor Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, among others.

On Wednesday, Maryland Stadium Authority officials surrounded Ripken's pedestal with two metal gates tied together with yellow caution tape. A piece of the 8 remained affixed to the base, indicating that the statue had been damaged when ripped off its bolts. The statue itself is hollow on the inside; it must be filled with sand to weigh it down.Tourists and others gathered around Baltimore's latest crime scene, snapped pictures alongside television cameramen and chatted about the theft with their ballpark guide. In the background, speakers blared play-by-play calls from happier times, such as a close Opening Day 3-2 win over the Tigers in 1974 at the old Memorial Stadium.

"It's just senseless," said Doug Vernard, a 61-year-old resident of Cleveland who was in Baltimore to catch a cruise to Nova Scotia. The lifelong Indians fan likened the theft to someone taking the statue of Hall of Famer Bob Feller from in front of his city's ballpark.

"There would be a lynch mob," he said.

Vernard paused, glanced at the statue of Babe Ruth and then looked back in disbelief at the empty spot where he had seen the number 8 while walking the night before.

"I mean, it's Cal Ripken," he said.

John W. Ziemann, the deputy director of the Sports Legends Museum, said he did a double-take when he arrived at work Wednesday morning. "I said to myself, 'Something's not right.' I think somebody hit it twice, grabbed it and ran. They had to do this real fast."

Ziemann said the statues are aging, worn and abused. He said people sit on them (a child fell off the number 8 a few years back) and some are scratched or marred with graffiti. One person can easily rock them back and forth a bit, and it seems that with force they can break.

The Orioles own the statues and the Maryland Stadium Authority owns the plaza, and officials from both offices refused to comment. A spokesman for the team, Greg Bader, wouldn't even say whether there are any plans to fix the broken statue. Ripken, through a spokesman, also declined to comment.

It might be impossible to put a price tag on what Cal Ripken Jr. means to Baltimore, but it also appears it's impossible to estimate the worth of his number in aluminum form.

In his report, Southern District Police Officer Terry Graham wrote: "Number 8 Hall of Fame statue. Value Unknown."