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Ripken's clout adds icing to fans' cake

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Every swing is reason enough for a camera-caused explosion of light. Every assist, every dive and every hit is cause for prolonged applause.

Cal Ripken's farewell tour has brought him to Disneyland for the final time in his 21-year career. He has received a pair of cowboy boots, autographed jerseys, donations to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a parade in his honor and the overwhelming appreciation of fans who have embraced him as one of their own.

The Orioles' third baseman again gave back on Friday night.

His first-pitch, second-inning home run off Anaheim Angels left-hander Scott Schoeneweis extended a magical run in which Ripken has again elevated his performance to match the surrounding hype.

"A storybook thing and I had the bad half," Schoeneweis mused in the aftermath of the Orioles' 4-3, 10-inning win over the Angels at Edison International Field.

Playing almost daily as one of his team's most productive hitters, Ripken has surged since announcing his retirement at the end of this season June 19.

He is hitting .397 in July and .363 (33-for-91) since making official widespread suspicion that this would be his final season. Ripken has done so while the Orioles fight to improve a 5-19 month that has made his farewell tour an upbeat exception within a sobering stretch.

"This is really a celebration of baseball. It's an opportunity for people to say goodbye," Ripken said. "It gives me an opportunity to say goodbye, too."

Within a month of his 41st birthday, Ripken has said so long to Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth and now Anaheim. He has homered in every city except Chicago - the only stop that preceded his compelling performance at the All-Star Game in Seattle.

"He's a living legend, and he's done it through a tremendous passion for the game and a tremendous work ethic," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "I think people think he's just done it on God-given talent. To be able to play with such focus for so long ... is something that inspires a lot of people."

Using a variety of batting stances while admitting to being mentally liberated by his June announcement, Ripken has hit five home runs and driven in 11 runs in his last 12 games, bringing some fans to tears and all to their feet. He has gone hitless in only three of his last 27 games, including one appearance as a pinch hitter.

"You try not to lose your focus," said Ripken. "You try to keep it as simple as possible. See the ball. Hit the ball. It's probably easier for me to do if I think as little about it as possible. I seem to get into trouble if I think too much."

Ripken had managed only four home runs and 27 RBIs before this month, but has more than doubled his home runs and piled on 12 RBIs to rank as his team's second-leading run producer behind Jeff Conine.

"You have to give him moment. He's earned it for sure," said Schoeneweis.

Ripken took two curtain calls in Atlanta during a two-homer game. Friday night, he became the focal point of a media crush following a game decided between bullpens. As scrutiny of his every movement has increased, Ripken has fed his legend game by game.

"I think it may force you to increase your focus," he said of playing through ovation after ovation. "You can't think of two things at once, so you don't get into the box until your mind is on the task at hand."

The Orioles, 43-61 after last night's 6-4 loss, ended their five-game losing streak Friday by winning for the fourth time in their last 22 games.

Eight innings after Ripken's shot, rookie pinch hitter Larry Bigbie singled with two outs and the bases loaded against Angels reliever Al Levine. Bigbie's second major-league RBI splintered his bat before dropping just beyond shortstop to score Melvin Mora for the Orioles' first one-run road win since April 11.

About the only fans yet to revel in Ripken's surge are those at Camden Yards. In one of the season's most schizoid trends, Ripken has hit each of his nine home runs and all but two of his 17 extra-base hits on the road. He has a .519 road slugging percentage while he has amassed only a .266 slugging percentage in his supposedly hitter-friendly home park.

"I don't know why that is. I suppose we played a lot of games at home early on. As I've gradually felt more comfortable, we seem to have been on the road more," Ripken said. "Those things tend to even out."

Ripken acknowledges that Camden Yards is playing larger this season because of the club's decision to move home plate about seven feet closer to the backstop last winter.

"It plays bigger, especially in left-center field. But I've always thought it was a misnomer when people called our park a band box," Ripken said. "I think it looks that way because the warehouse is so impressive.

"But I never considered it to be the hitter's paradise some people made it out to be. It takes a pretty good shot to get the ball out and the grass is always kept high so it's hard to get the ball to the wall."

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