Cal Ripken Jr., the Iron Man who became the greatest Oriole of his generation and a record-breaking ambassador for the national pastime, played his final game last nightat Camden Yards. And after the final out, he proclaimed his 21 years of big league baseball a dream come true.
It was a night for nostalgia, and a celebration of family, hard work and achievement. All night, video clips of Ripken as promising rookie, established all-star and bona fide baseball statesman glowed above the center field wall.
But Ripken, 41, refused to call his retirement an end.
"My dreams for the future include pursuing my passion for baseball," he said. "Hopefully, I will be able to share what I have learned, and I would be happy if that sharing would lead to something as simple as a smile on the face of others."
Before the game, 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 3,001 games, he had earned that kind of respect.
"Cal became the symbol for the American work ethic and the symbol for the American working man," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.
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 his 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.
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. A train derailment and fire forced postponement of games. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 - and baseball went dark. The dates for Ripken's last home appearance and final game changed.
When play resumed, the Ripken celebration continued. There was the gift of another seat, this one from Boston's Fenway Park. 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, 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, won by the Red Sox, 5-1, meant nothing in the standings. The night meant everything to Baltimore baseball followers.
Robert Morningstar, 37, of Essex, wore a plastic helmet adorned with a Cal 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.