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Goodbye, No. 8

A complicated mix of pride, reflection, celebration and sadness played out simply last night on the final night of Cal Ripken's final October. The Orioles ended a 63-98 season; Ripken closed a career.

Few will remember the Orioles lost to the Boston Red Sox, but none will forget the last night Ripken would step from the first base dugout to thank a gathering that thought of him as more than a hero-player or a role model but also as one of its own.

The game ended with a standing crowd shouting "We want Cal" as Brady Anderson tried to keep the game alive long enough to give Ripken one last at-bat. When Anderson swung through Ugueth Urbina's 3-2 fastball, it was over, a 5-1 loss. Anderson walked to the dugout, greeted by his smiling best friend. Ripken rubbed his helmet, Anderson dipped his head. Only the goodbyes remained.

Ripken arrived alone at the park around 3:30 p.m. The first minutes of his final day as a player were spent meeting with his wife and two children in the clubhouse video room. He later met with Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss, who notified him of the club's intention to donate $1 million for construction of the mini-Camden Yards at Ripken's Aberdeen Project.

Ripken admittedly was stunned.

Slipping into the clubhouse as quietly as possible, Ripken spoke with several teammates before heading to his locker at 4:12 p.m. to dress for the final time.

It was at this time of day Ripken felt closest to his late father, Cal Sr. The son always remembered the father at his proudest when he slipped into his uniform and began the work he loved.

Ripken dressed purposefully, speaking casually with visitors while preparing himself for a series of dugout interviews - one with Comcast SportsNet's Michael Reghi and another with WBAL play-by-play voice Jim Hunter. "I've had my fill," Ripken told Hunter as if to dispel the notion of his exit being cause for sadness.

Ripken granted a quickie photo shoot for the upcoming ESPY Awards, his hands framing his face as a photographer instructed him, "Tighter. Tighter. Tighter."

Finally only Ripken's eyes pierced the handmade frame.

He chatted with Three Mo' Tenors before accepting a CD and two hats from the group that would perform the national anthem, then excused himself to hit in the indoor batting cage.

"I know he's probably going to be relieved when it's over," said Anderson, Ripken's teammate since 1988. "A lot of athletes, when they leave, you feel bad for them. They seem so sad, distraught or devastated. It seems the opposite for Cal. I honestly think it's going to be a relief from the grind and the attention he has received. In that way, it won't be sad."

The final scorecard

Upstairs, former Sun baseball writer Jim Henneman prepared his scorecard. Now official scorer, Henneman saw Ripken's first game. He would savor the last.

The original scorecard becomes property of Major League Baseball, "but I think I'm going to be keeping a copy," Henneman said.

At 6:12 p.m. Ripken reached the dugout for a pre-game ceremony that began four minutes later and offered his introduction seven minutes after that. He reached a stage reserved for his wife, children and mother while Hunter emceed. Former President Bill Clinton was on hand. Majority owner Peter Angelos also ventured into the dugout. Ripken's moment to speak would come later, but his moment for reflection already had arrived.

"You always wonder if what you see is what you get," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said during the pre-game ceremony. "It's been my experience with Cal in the two years that I've been around that, yes, what you get is what you see. Cal is Cal."

Unlike the night six years ago when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, the ceremony did not include speaking parts for any member of the Orioles' front office other than vice chairman of community projects and public affairs Tom Clancy.

Vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift accompanied Hargrove onto the field to present Ripken a Waterford vase bearing likenesses of Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards. Foss was on hand to present the oversized $1 million check.

'Powerful' Cal Sr. moments

Ripken's stoicism was tested time and again during the ceremony. Hall of Fame broadcaster Chuck Thompson reminded everyone of Cal Ripken Sr.'s unswerving dedication to the game and its ethic. Broadcaster and former teammate Mike Flanagan spoke about the significance of Ripken's 3,001st and final game. "The one is the extra," Flanagan said, "and the extra stands for Cal."

Ripken had suspected a series of powerful moments. None proved more moving than the presentation of a gift from Angelos and his wife, Georgia - a 4-foot-tall charcoal facial portrait of Rip Sr. Ripken looked at the work before redirecting his stare to his hands.

"That was the most powerful thing to me," Ripken said, adding, "it stared at me the whole time."

The unveiling began a string of poignant tributes to the man credited with instilling a code of play as well as representing the underpinning of the organization. Ripken escorted his mother, Vi, from a dais to the Orioles dugout where a plaque was unveiled recognizing his father.

In a way, the gesture may have helped heal old scars. Ripken noted as recently as Friday his disappointment in the manner his father was fired as Orioles manager only six games into the 1988 season. Ripken returned to serve as a coach from 1989 to 1992 under managers Frank Robinson and Johnny Oates.

Words followed from Clinton, a firsthand witness to 2,131; Mayor Martin O'Malley, who renamed Lee Street, which runs south of the stadium, Ripken Way; and baseball commissioner Bud Selig, whose tribute included a newly christened Cal Ripken Jr. Award to be presented to any player who plays all of his team's games in any season.

Stepping back to 1981

Just when a crowd of 48,807, and Ripken, thought that the celebration had ended, the Orioles offered a surprise twist. Whoever plays first baseman traditionally feeds Ripken a ball on the run as he takes his position.

This time, Jeff Conine threw absurdly wild, causing Ripken to peel off to retrieve the throw from against the stands. When Ripken looked back up, he saw the starting lineup from his first major-league start standing in place of the regulars.

There was Bumbry, Dauer and Singleton; Murray, Roenicke and Dempsey. Scott McGregor stood on the mound, Earl Weaver "managing" just off the foul line. In tribute to the late Mark Belanger, shortstop remained empty, though Belanger's sons were on hand in uniform.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment," Conine said.

The Moment again found Ripken with two outs in the second inning. Facing Red Sox starting pitcher David Cone, he waited one pitch before lining a fly ball to the left-field warning track. Typifying a 2-for-45 slump during which his hardest-hit balls were caught, Troy O'Leary retreated for the catch.

At-bats and frustration

Ripken waited three innings and 37 minutes to receive his next at-bat against Cone. By then, the Orioles trailed by three runs and were well on their way to their 98th loss, their most in 13 years.

Ripken, a habitual first-strike hacker, took two balls before lashing at Cone's third pitch. When he managed nothing more than a pop to short, Ripken finished his swing with his back to the first base dugout and flipped his bat in disgust over his shoulder.

The last at-bat of Ripken's career - No. 11,551 - began with a standing ovation that caused Cone to retreat from the mound. Ripken acknowledged the reception, mouthed something to himself, exhaled and climbed into the box at 9:48 p.m. Two fastballs missed for balls before Ripken fouled another straight back.

Thousands of flashbulbs caught his last swing, a fly ball to center field that Trot Nixon caught with little effort. A step from first base, Ripken detoured to the dugout. Standing in front of Hargrove, he glanced around himself as if unsure what to do. Finally, he retreated.

A final curtain call

Another ovation. Another curtain call. Ten years to the day after Ripken took the final at-bat at Memorial Stadium, he left the first base dugout with a simple message. "That's all."

And it was over. Or in the spirit of the night, just beginning again.

He ended his abbreviated speech poignantly and simply, saying, "One question I've repeatedly been asked these last few weeks is how do I want to be remembered. My answer has been simple: To be remembered at all is pretty special. I might also add that if I am remembered, I hope it's because by living my dream I was able to make a difference. Thank you."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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