ABERDEEN -- It became the most meaningful of all tributes offered to Cal Ripken Jr. since it originated in his hometown, where friends and neighbors lined the streets last night to acclaim their native son as a conquering hero -- except he wasn't there, as they knew he wouldn't be. Still, this mere detail in no way reduced the size of the crowd or diminished the enthusiasm.
Hand-held placards proclaimed the immensity of the Ripken achievement; spectators chanted his name and otherwise staged one of the most spirited celebrations any pride-filled community has ever produced. It qualifies as an epic display of what small-town America, at its best, is all about.
Mayor Chuck Boutin, not given to exaggeration, simply said, "I'd rather be mayor of Aberdeen than president of the United States." And Eileen Rehrmann, the county executive of Harford County, was wearing an Aberdeen High School T-shirt that had a painted declaration on the back, "Our Hero Cal, 2131."
The numbers represented the record-breaking figure Ripken produced for himself and the Baltimore Orioles in overtaking the Lou Gehrig mark that had resisted the challenges of time for 56 years. Ripken wasn't able to be in Aberdeen for the festivities sincehe was in another parade and then attending to business with the Orioles as they prepared to play tonight in Cleveland against the Indians.
All the other Ripkens of Aberdeen became the full focus of attention, led by Cal's parents, brother Fred and sister Elly and, of course, don't forget brother Bill. They had the place of honor in the parade, atop a float pulled by a tractor, obviously reminding the crowd of the county's long-held link to farming.
Bel Air's town commissioners, led by chairman Joseph Brooks, were riding a hay wagon, with two Belgian draft horses supplying the power. Another great touch. The Havre de Grace High School band was preceded by a sign of introduction that read: "From The Town Of Your Birth."
Other bands came from such high schools as Aberdeen, Bel Air, C. Milton Wright, North Harford, Edgewood and Perryville. The Silver Eagle Cloggers were in the lineup and so were a combination of clowns named Zippy, Peppermint and Lollipop. Also the Blazers of Cecil County and Miss Maryland Princess, pre-teen Jesse Gunns of Elkton.
Steve Geppi, an ownership partner in the Orioles, praised Jim McMahan, who headed the Ripken salute, and called his organization efforts and enthusiasm nothing less than extraordinary.
The owner of the Albuquerque Dukes, the Los Angeles Dodgers' top farm club, Bob Lozinak, also a Harford County businessman, said, "All of baseball is watching Cal and he's going to continue to be a source for doing so much good -- now and in the years ahead."
Cal Ripken Sr., called on for remarks, told the gathering a sportswriter questioned him a week ago, wanting to know what his top thrill might be. "I told him it hadn't happened yet," explained Ripken. "Now I want to tell you there's nothing that compares to the experience of the last two days."
Mary Grace Smith, riding in an antique parade car, took in the impressive scene and said, "This is as much a tribute to his family as to young Cal."
Charles Smith then let it be known that he's a kin to Ripken: "Everybody in the country says they're related to them, but I really am. My grandmother and Cal Sr.'s grandfather were brother and sister. Those Ripken boys, when they got dressed in the mornings, they put on their ball gloves."
Ed Bryant exclaimed that Cal Jr. has become a "baseball drawing card from the president on down." And John Schafer, who lives in Bel Air and played with and against Cal Sr., in the semipro Susquehanna League, simply said, "Young Cal has put Aberdeen on the map."
The parade left from Cal's alma mater, Aberdeen High School, made its way down Paradise Road to Bel Air Avenue, past the Heart to Heart Hair Studio, the Getty Gas Station, crossing over the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks and in front of the Wilson Oliver Insurance Agency, Western Auto, H. & R. Block, Frank's Pizza, the Post Office and Dill's Pharmacy, among other business outlets, before it reached the reviewing stand.
Lt. Col. Pat Findley, head of the garrison at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, was in a place of honor and then one of the post's drill units, counting cadence, lent the kind of sharp military presence that goes with life in Aberdeen, where the army and civilians have had a harmonious relationship since about the time of World War I.
There were 59 distinct groups in the line of march, which made it a much larger parade than the one held earlier in the day in downtown Baltimore, where the entire Orioles' team was present.
For something that truly made an impression it was what unfolded in Aberdeen, where everybody, including the Ripkens, as they say in the country, are home folks. If you like Cal Ripken, you're never going to be standing around as a stranger in Aberdeen.