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Saying thanks, goodbye to Cal

Cal Ripken: Playing his last game tonight after 21 seasons, the legend has touched teammates, the community and anyone for whom he signed an autograph

By Kevin Langbaum

SunSpot Staff

October 6, 2001

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Tom Pendleton knew he could make a nice profit by selling his tickets to tonight's game, but for the lifelong Maryland resident and Orioles fan, eBay was never an option.

"There was no chance of that," said Pendleton, who was born and raised in Baltimore and now lives in Bowie.

Pendleton attended Brooks Robinson's last game as an Oriole, Earl Weaver's last game as manager and the final game at Memorial Stadium in 1991. He wasn't at games 2,130 and 2,131, but was there the night in 1998 when Ripken decided to end his consecutive games played streak.

"This is similar to those events," he said before the game, but he had to wait to pass judgment on where this one ranked. "You'll have to talk to me at the end of the game. The emotions will come out."

Like many people, Pendleton bought tickets to the Sept. 23 game against the Yankees that was scheduled to be Ripken's home finale. But his 9-year-old son Nicholas Frechette couldn't attend that game, so Pendleton bought tickets for Sept. 16 as a replacement.

When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 forced baseball to shuffle its schedule, the Sept. 16 tickets turned out to be the lucky ones.

The change in days almost affected three fans who made the trip from Cocoa Beach, Fla., for the game. Tim Carroll and the aptly named twins Rip and Eddie Claunch bought tickets online to the Sept. 23 game for $250 each. When the schedule was changed, though, they contacted the woman who sold them their tickets, and she exchanged them, no questions asked.

Carroll and the Claunches arrived at the ballpark at 10:30 a.m. - five and a half hours before the gates opened - to be first in line at the Eutaw Street gate. Clad in matching black Ripken jerseys and rubber baseball-shaped hats, they wanted a chance to see the player they long admired and credited with saving baseball after the strike in 1994.

"He makes you feel like you're part of the game. Ripken is baseball. He made you want to love baseball again," said Rip Claunch, an avid collector whose favorite piece is an autographed picture from Ripken with the special greeting, "Nice name."

For fans of Ripken, his Hall-of-Fame playing credentials pale in comparison to the way he treated his fans.

Shane and Becky Lewis of Johnson City, Tenn., first saw Ripken at an exhibition game in Atlanta a few years ago and were struck by how accommodating he was with autographs. They've been fans since, and last saw him play in July in Atlanta, when he hit two home runs in a game against the Braves.

"I've never seen anyone do what he did," said Becky Lewis, who has two dogs named Ripken and Callie. "See him once and you're a fan."

"That's the thing that blows my mind," said rookie pitcher Josh Towers. "The way the people take to him and the way he takes to the people."

The day had a special feel for Ripken's teammates as well as his fans. First baseman Jeff Conine likened the night to a playoff atmosphere. Second baseman Jerry Hairston looked forward to the pre-game ceremony, eager to hear what Ripken had to say. When the Orioles took the field, Ripken's current teammates deferred to the lineup from Aug. 12, 1981 the night of Ripken's first start in a tribute reminiscent of the final day at Memorial Stadium 10 years ago.

Scott McGregor took the mound in uniform, complete with cartoon bird hat, with Rick Dempsey behind the plate. Eddie Murray and Rich Dauer took their positions at first and second base. Gary Roenicke, Al Bumbry and Ken Singleton roamed the Camden Yards outfield. Weaver stood by home plate. The shortstop that day was the late Mark Belanger, who was represented by his sons.

As past gave way to present, Ripken was joined in the infield by Tony Batista, Conine and Hairston. He caught a Trot Nixon popup to end the top of the first inning.

Before the game, Hairston recalled a night his freshman year at Southern Illinois University when he and other players skipped study hall to watch Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game. He said he cried that night watching the game.

"Baseball really needed that. It was great for the game," Hairston said.

Ripken's farewell tour has also been great for the Orioles. Towers said the attention given to Ripken helped get the players' minds off their dismal record. It also kept Camden Yards packed.

Fans navigated the crowded concourses, where many stood in long lines to purchase a souvenir or the official commemorative photo album. The sell-out crowd showered Ripken with applause and set off a stream of flashbulbs when he emerged from the dugout to begin the pre-game ceremonies.

Ripken took a seat alongside his wife, Kelly, children Ryan and Rachel and his mother, Vi, on a stage in front of the pitcher's mound. While members of the Orioles and Red Sox sat along the steps of the dugout, other family and friends, including brother Bill, watched as a series of guests commended Ripken and presented him with gifts. Between innings of the game, the Jumbotron screen showed tributes from others around baseball and highlights from Ripken's career.

Emcee Jim Hunter announced a decree by Gov. Parris N. Glendening that Oct. 6, 2001, is Cal Ripken Jr. Day throughout Maryland. Mayor Martin O'Malley, wearing a black and orange Orioles jacket, announced that Lee Street near the stadium will be renamed Ripken Way.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said the Cal Ripken Jr. Award will be given out starting next year to players who play in all of their team's scheduled games. Former President Bill Clinton praised Ripken as "the kind of man a father would want his son to grow up to be."

Ripken's father, Cal Ripken Sr., died in 1999, but a large portrait bearing his likeness stood next to the podium. Ripken and his mother walked into the Orioles' dugout where a plaque honoring Senior was unveiled.

As Ripken prepared to play his final game, he took his rightful place alongside other Oriole greats Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray and Weaver the only Orioles to have their uniform numbers retired.

All except Brooks were on hand to uncover the No. 8 that will stand among their numbers outside of the stadium, signifying what those in the crowd already knew.

There will never be another No. 8.