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Sadness mixes with joy for family before game


When Vi Ripken followed her son into the Orioles dugout last night, and the bronze plaque to her late husband was unveiled, baseball's Iron Man leaned in and whispered to his mom: "I didn't think it was supposed to be like this."

Telling the story later, Vi Ripken explained, "We were trying to end this on a happy note." But she quickly realized that the celebration would be bittersweet.

This was Cal Ripken Jr.'s night, but he decided his family would join him on the field for the pre-game ceremonies. And the tributes to Cal Jr. were combined with tributes to his father, the longtime third base coach and manager.

While the memorials to Cal Ripken Sr. moved many in the family to tears, the Ripkens also realized the permanence their name has in Orioles baseball.

"These [memorials] are going to be here for a long, long time, and hopefully young players will read [the dugout plaque] and they'll think of Senior," said Bill Ripken, who played alongside Cal in the Orioles infield for seven years.

"The tributes to Senior were tremendous, and it made me feel real proud to be his son," he said. "Without him there wouldn't be a Junior - and I don't mean biologically. I mean everything he taught Cal, and everything Cal learned from him."

For all the emotions the Ripken family careened through last night - from pride to joy to sadness - it was probably even tougher for the fans, Bill Ripken said. After all, Cal Jr. wasn't retiring from the family.

"I know I'll get him after baseball," he said, "but these people have been living with him for 21 years - he is Mr. Oriole - and they're going to get hit harder than I will."

Everyone seemed to be paying deference to the family. When an aide to Mayor Martin O'Malley guided him to a Camden Yards elevator, the mayor insisted the Ripkens go first. "Let Vi take it," O'Malley said to the elevator operator. "Take the Ripkens. Take the Ripkens."

The Ripken family watched the game from a skybox along the first base line. The door was guarded by a small army of ushers, but the Ripkens frequently emerged and gamely signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans.

"You did a great job," one woman said to Vi Ripken. "Thank you so much."

Vi and her son, Fred, said they didn't want Cal to stop playing, but they weren't about to try and talk him out of it.

"There's nobody in my family who wants to see him stop," said Fred Ripken, who attended the game with his fiancee and two daughters. "We all firmly believe he can still play this game, and play at the top level. If he had asked me about it, I would have told him he was nuts, but he didn't ask me."

Added Vi, "It was Cal's decision, and we have to be happy for him. He's had a very good career, and I don't think there's anything left he can give to baseball."

She said that Ripken's children - 11-year-old Rachel and 8-year-old Ryan - probably didn't fully understand what they were witnessing. During the pre-game ceremony, the children sat on a stage between their mother, Kelly, and grandmother, swinging their feet from their chairs and playing with a stuffed Oriole.

At one point, as Jim Palmer was paying tribute to Cal, Rachel alighted from her perch and put her arm around Ryan in a sisterly embrace.

Afterward, in a post-game news conference, Rachel said: "Usually, I just think it's another baseball game. Today, I had this special feeling and felt really good for my dad."

"In a way," Vi Ripken said, "I still have a hard time understanding all of it. He always wanted to play baseball, and that's what he did."

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