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Maese: Once more, Ripken offers Orioles fans reason to rejoice

If you're able to ignore the baseball standings, it was about the best night you could imagine at the ballpark. Giant numbers were hanging on the warehouse again. Rabid fans filled the seats at Oriole Park again. The Orioles won a game again. And for a beleaguered and frustrated fan base, for three hours, there was something worth cheering again.

More than 42,000 fans time-traveled, and it didn't really matter what year you chose because the memories were all worth savoring. The living, breathing timeline of better days was seated in folding chairs right there in the infield before last night's Orioles game.

Brooks. Eddie. Earl. And Cal.

The Orioles were worth celebrating again, and the festivities that preceded last night's game, honoring Cal Ripken Jr. before his Hall of Fame induction this weekend, featured some of the most celebrated men to ever wear an Orioles uniform. But please, let's not call it a "send-off." After all, who was saying goodbye?

Let's call it what it was: a See-You-Sunday-Cal. The truth is, a whole lot of the Orioles fans who were on hand last night will be in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Sunday, ready to cheer Ripken again.

"Everybody I've run into says they're going to be there," Ripken said before last night's game.

Ripken will be at the front of a massive caravan tomorrow morning when he and his family head to Cooperstown. Last night was his final audition for Sunday, and though he'll surely have a huge sense of relief when this is all finished, Orioles fans probably wouldn't mind if it dragged on.

For now, there's something to celebrate if you live and die Orioles baseball. For now, the trade deadline is on the back burner, the hunt for a new manager is only a mild curiosity, and the prospects of a 10th consecutive losing season aren't reason to throw yourself out the nearest window.

Just as he did for so many years, Ripken is saving this team in a time of need - albeit momentarily. How else do you pack the house on a Tuesday night to watch the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays battle it out for fourth place in the American League East?

The answer seems simple: You paint a No. 8 on the field near home plate and hand out 25,000 Ripken bobbleheads at the gate. You promise the return of Baltimore's childhood heroes to Oriole Park for a one-night engagement. You bask in the glory of one of the game's best shortstops, cashing in one last time on his enormous drawing power.

The result was an opening act that blew the headliner out of the water. Ripken giving a speech before Devil Rays-Orioles felt an awful lot like the Rolling Stones opening for Sanjaya Malakar and a cast of American Idol rejects. Just as when he was still wearing his glove every day, no one sells tickets around here like Ripken.

"He was probably a Hall of Famer the first time he put on an Oriole uniform," former manager Earl Weaver said last night. "All it took was for time to pass."

Six years after retiring, Ripken is still one of the few reasons Orioles fans proudly wear their colors and ballcaps outdoors this summer. And Sunday's induction marks perhaps the only date on the Orioles' 2007 calendar that was ever worth circling.

Unfortunately for the box office's bottom line, Ripken's induction into the Hall of Fame is but a respite. The innate problem with last night's orange-clad love-in is that there has always been an expiration date. As good a job as the Orioles did with the pre-game ceremony - capped by the team's $1 million donation to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation - it really was a "send-off" for the Orioles. It's the last time in the foreseeable future that they'll be able to capitalize on Ripken's name, accomplishments and celebrity.

When Ripken finishes his speech Sunday, the magical time machine that 42,000 fans jumped in last night will come to a crashing halt, and when the caravan moves back to Baltimore, reality will set in and the differences between the past and present - the glory days and the dog days - will never be so striking.

Ripken afforded the team a long line of goodwill credit. Last night, the team took advantage one final time in a big way, providing a fun, entertaining night for fans, for players and even for the legends who returned to congratulate Ripken. It was the perfect send-off and certainly reason to reminisce about the past.

Ripken has found plenty of business ventures to keep him busy, and he seems to talk about the old days because everyone likes it so much. Similarly, after Sunday's ceremony, the Orioles need to move forward as well.

The Ripken celebration last night was enjoyable, and, for a night, baseball at Oriole Park was fun again. But as fans filed out of the ballpark, they must have been asking themselves, "With Cal gone, when will we have a reason to celebrate like that again?" In that sense, maybe it was a "send-off" after all.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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