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Count down on Cal's days


At 6:30, the upper decks at Camden Yards look as sparse as deserted honeycombs. Attendance is down. Still, the sun's warm, beer flows for $4.50 and Boog's barbecue smoke hangs sweetly over the right field bleachers.

In a terrace box on the first-base side, an older married couple spreads out for a night made for rumination, cogitation, conversation, speculation and statistics. Cal Ripken's not playing against Tampa Bay tonight, but there's still baseball in Baltimore.

Myra Gross says: "Give him the benefit of the doubt. He needs another month of playing time to find out."

Her husband, Barry, disagrees: "The guy should say, 'This is my last year.' The kids will have to look for someone else to get autographs from."

They're 52. They discuss the greats they have watched since childhood with equal fascination - Brooks and Boog and even old George Kell. At some point, against the backdrop of memories, they will conclude that Ripken, now 40 and sidelined, should announce his retirement at the All-Star break.

Myra will agree, with hesitation, then grow wistful and speak her truth: "He's the heart and soul of the way the Orioles used to be."

Down by the right field line, photographer John Elliott clutches a ticket stub dated April 15, 2000, the night he saw Ripken's 3,000th hit in Minneapolis. He's 33, squeezed inside a throng of kids waiting for The Autograph.

"My opinion? Cal will be in management next year," he says. "The best thing he can do is retire at the last home game of the season."

Two boys jostle beside him, arguing.

Eric Pfeifer, who is 12, says: "He's old but he can still play."

Eric's older brother, Tom, laughs in his face: "He's washed up!"

They want The Autograph, too.

By game time all three will conclude it's been OK to miss Ripken's inky stroke. They look to the future. In two years, Elliott says, Jerry Hairston will be the best second baseman in baseball. Eric says he actually likes Derek Jeter better than the old Iron Man.

Baseball has always been a fetish of excruciating detail, statistical overkill and loud, endless talk. But when the impending loss of a legend makes headlines, argument becomes conversation. Fans can be as meditative as priests. It is the way of all flesh, of course, but heroes get greater respect: Let him finish with dignity; let the city celebrate his career with a huge party; let him make his own decision without pressure. About Cal, there is no consensus, but there is movement.

Down by third base, a television reporter seats former Orioles slugger Lee May on a chair in front of a camera and asks about the decision to strike Ripken from the lineup so a young prospect can get time at third.

May, now a coach for Tampa Bay, is 60 and philosophical. He shrugs and says he understands: "These things happen."

The graying coach seems oblivious to the Iron Man, taking infield practice at the bag just a few yards away. The Iron Man licks his fingers and rubs them deep against the pocket of his glove, oblivious to everything but a grounder streaking through the grass. He's been telling reporters he's coming back, he feels good, he can prove himself if he can just get more at-bats.

A small crowd of journalists has knotted around the Orioles' manager, Mike Hargrove, to ask again about his decision to bench the team's most enduring player. The coach is oblique, speaks easily, restates his position. He says what he's said before: He only wants to see if a younger man can prove himself at the plate.

Someone asks how long that will take. Hargrove answers calmly that he doesn't know and repeats his decision: He only wants to see if a younger man can prove himself at the plate.

Eager Mike Kinkade, coach's Younger Man taking over at third, sits down in front of a television camera at the first-base line. He grins when the reporter asks, "Would you say this is the most exciting time of your major-league career?" An hour earlier during warm-ups, Ripken watched expressionless by the batting cage as his replacement smacked one off the right field scoreboard.

"It's not good for people to keep talking about this," says Christian Miller, who lounges with his dad, Jerry, in the right field bleachers. The crowd's so thin they can spread out across six seats. "The longer he stays, the more people will talk and the worse it will get. Time's time. Now's his time."

"Yeah, I'm 52," says his dad. "I used to play softball every night since I was 18, and I can tell you, you get that age, you don't heal up like you used to."

Talk, talk, talk. Justification, calculation, enumeration, indignation, occasional capitulation.

There's something ritualistic about the chatter. Out of this mire of unpleasant circumstances you can almost hear larger voices rising over the narrow valley of earth at Eutaw Street. Is it the fans with a lament as pained as John Milton's: O dark, dark, dark, still amid the blaze of noon. Or the Iron Man's uncommon moan, quivering like that old wail from bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley: Oh Death, oh Death, won't you spare me over til another year?

No, tonight the voices are quieter and more dignified. After all, this is a legend. This is baseball. You can only watch for signs and prepare. If grief is a process, it will take more time for the player and his fans to reach the glory of farewell.

But the awareness is coming, like a freight train down the tracks, especially on these cool nights when Ripken is not playing and everyone realizes that there is still baseball in Baltimore.

"Well, he's my favorite," says Ross Cochrane, an 11-year-old who struggles to discuss the subject. Like his aging hero, he plays third base. He watched the Iron Man on Opening Day this year with his mom. He hears the man in the seat beside him say he already purchased tickets for the last game of the season so he can be here if the career comes to an end that day.

The little fellow takes a deep breath and deals with something that seems inevitable and maybe unfair. It's a feeling that every kid, if he's lucky, eventually comes to inside the fantasy of sports. It's strong enough to stir the guts of a lot of adults, too. He looks you in the eye, though, and puts it out there as straight as he knows how.

"I guess if he retired I'd find a new player," he says, hopefully. "But it is kind of hard."

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