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Ripken on his way

O's greats, mayor, fans give send-off before induction

By Dan Connolly

Sun Reporter

July 25, 2007

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He's considered the most prepared player to wear an Orioles uniform, perhaps the most prepared athlete in the history of the game.

So it's fitting that days before he'll stand on a dais in Cooperstown, N.Y., and attempt to summarize his stellar 21-season career, Cal Ripken Jr. had a dry run for Sunday, a dress rehearsal of sorts, before 42,579 of his closest friends at Camden Yards.

Billed as Cal Ripken's Hall of Fame Sendoff, yesterday's pre-game ceremony had the feel of a mini-induction, complete with his family and a selected set of Hall of Famers in attendance and a five-minute Ripken thank-you speech at the ready.

Orange-and-black-clad fans - some holding signs that read "Classic American Legend" or "Cal For President" - were on their feet from the time Orioles great Brooks Robinson was announced until Ripken threw the first pitch to his longtime friend and Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray. Mayor Sheila Dixon proclaimed Sunday "Cal Ripken Jr. Day" in Baltimore.

"In moments like these, you start to reflect and think back over your whole career," Ripken told the crowd last night. "I was fortunate enough to play 10 years in the old Memorial Stadium and 10 years in this beautiful place. But it certainly wasn't about the ballparks; it was about the experiences."

Ripken rattled off some of his favorites, from his first pennant race in 1982, to the closing of Memorial Stadium and opening of Camden Yards, to the magical night of Sept. 6, 1995, when he made his famous lap around the stadium after breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record with No. 2,131.

"For a brief moment, when you guys were clapping and standing up, I had a flashback moment," Ripken said. "You guys clapped for about 22 minutes that night, and you forced me to run around the ballpark and shake everybody's hand.

"That ain't happening tonight," he joked.

The true celebration and longer speech is set for Sunday afternoon in upstate New York, when Ripken and San Diego Padres great Tony Gwynn are ushered into the Hall.

But for those who aren't going, the Orioles brought the party to Camden Yards - and gave out commemorative bobbleheads to mark the occasion.

"I was here for 2,131. I had to come to this. I can't make it to Cooperstown or else I would," said Paul Johnson, 24, of Silver Spring. "I grew up on him. He started out when I was born, so he goes back as far as I can remember."

Yesterday was a chance to congratulate Ripken, while - at least briefly - reliving the Orioles' great history. Murray, Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver and Robin Roberts were on hand, and video messages from Jim Palmer, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and others were displayed throughout the night.

"The first pitch to Eddie Murray, that was the highlight," said Bob Duncan, 43, of Federal Hill. "The memories, going back to when Earl Weaver was the manager, and Cal playing with Eddie. Those are good memories."

For those who weren't around during the Orioles' glory days, the evening with Ripken still had meaning. "I am just learning about the history and tradition of the Orioles," said interim manager Dave Trembley. "And one of those things we are trying to do here is lay a foundation and a framework of reference to return maybe some tradition and history that hasn't been around here for a while."

"Having respect for the uniform and having respect for the people who have come before us, and trying to make a contribution for those coming after us, is what Cal Ripken did, is what people who wore this uniform did in the so-called glory years of the Baltimore Orioles. And for us to get the opportunity to do that, it should not be taken lightly."

The Orioles and the visiting Tampa Bay Devil Rays seemed almost as rapt as the crowd, with both teams standing at the top railings of the dugouts, watching most of the proceedings. "I don't think you can compare Cal to anyone," said injured Orioles third baseman , who played with Ripken in 2000 and 2001. "As a player, he's the best I've seen. As a person, he's the best I've seen."

That was a common sentiment last night. "I'm a partial season-ticket holder, and I didn't have tickets for this game, but I wouldn't miss it for anything. Cal was my idol," said Phil Krauss of Washington.

Krauss, 24, and two buddies painted their chests orange with black letters to spell C-A-L. Krauss was the L.

"I can't think of a better figure that the game has produced in the last 30 years than Cal Ripken," he said. "He's a student of the game and the ambassador for the game. He saved baseball."

Ripken will be joining the rest of the sport's all-time greats Sunday, when he'll deliver a speech that needs only finishing touches.

"It's difficult in the fact that there are many thoughts that run through your head - who you want to thank and how you want to thank them," he said. "You do want to keep it simple, but at the same time you don't want to spend a lot of time doing it. It's been challenging so far. The more you get into writing it and editing it, the more you think of other things."

He had a little practice yesterday, speaking briefly and waving to the screaming crowd.

"We got one more memory to look forward to, and that's this Sunday," Ripken told the crowd. "I want to thank everyone for congratulating me over the last six months, and I swear everyone I run into in this area tells me they're going to see me this Sunday.

"So I'll see you all this Sunday."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com
Sun reporter Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.