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Final salute to Ripken

The mayor named a street after him. A former president called him the best running story in baseball. A sell-out throng cheered his every move, lighting the sky with flashbulbs and the glint of metallic confetti, chanting, "Thank you, Cal."

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.

"Imagine, playing for my hometown team for my whole career," he said, taking a position in the infield beneath a post-game spotlight. He thanked his parents and praised his teammates, and then he saluted "you fans, who have loved the game and shared your love with me."

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.

He said he paid $125 for his ticket, but wouldn't have missed the once-in-a lifetime experience: "Cal's been here for us every day."

The celebrations, in the works since July, were perhaps the most anticipated baseball event in Baltimore since Sept. 6, 1995, when Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive game to break Lou Gehrig's record.

Last night was, in many ways, a salute to Ripken's family.

His mother, Vi, threw out the first pitch. His late father, Cal Sr. - the coach and manager who tirelessly taught the do-it-right philosophy dubbed "The Oriole Way" - was honored with a plaque in the home team's dugout.

The Orioles presented Ripken with an oversized check for $1 million for the youth baseball academy under construction in his hometown of Aberdeen. A sketch for an 8-foot statue of Ripken, to be stationed at Camden Yards, was unveiled.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said Lee Street, near the stadium, would be renamed Ripken Way.

Some of the biggest roars went to figures from the Orioles' glory days. Earl Weaver, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray announced that Ripken's No. 8 would be retired.

When the pre-game ceremony ended, Ripken trotted to third base to take his position for the first inning - but his teammates stayed in the dugout.

He was joined on the field, instead, by former teammates Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, Rick Dempsey and others who were in the starting lineup on Aug. 12, 1981 - Ripken's first start as an Oriole.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Ripken came to bat for the last time. He tipped his cap to the roaring crowd of 48,807. He flied out but was coaxed from the dugout for a curtain call.

He touched his hand to his heart and waved to the fans.

When the game ended, he climbed into a vintage convertible and slowly circled the field, confetti shimmering in the air and images of Ripken projected onto the warehouse wall.

The stadium went dark, and Ripken made his way to a microphone between third base and shortstop - the positions he played - to bid his farewell.

The crowd chanted. Ripken smiled, exhaled and seemed ready to speak. He hesitated, and exhaled again.

"One question I've been repeatedly asked these last few weeks is, how do I want to be remembered?" he said. "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."

With fireworks shooting above the scoreboard, and a giant No. 8 burning bright against the centerfield ivy, Ripken met his family and disappeared into the dugout.

The final tally on Ripken's achievements will read: one World Series ring, two Gold Gloves, two All-Star game Most Valuable Player awards, two American League Most Valuable Player awards, 19 All-Star games, more than 400 home runs and more than 3,000 hits.

And 3,001 games played - including 2,632 in a row.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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