The Iron Man hobbled up the stage showing a bit of rust.
A knee injury during a recent pickup basketball game was responsible for Cal Ripken Jr.'s slight limp. But the former Oriole great knows a little about playing with pain.
"I did have nagging injuries when I played. And in the same spirit, there was no way I was going to miss coming out here today," Ripken told a cheering crowd of thousands in Bel Air yesterday after a parade in his honor down Main Street.
It was Cal Ripken Jr. Day in Harford County, and the Aberdeen native returned to his roots for an event put on by the county government to celebrate Ripken's coming induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and mark opening day for his minor league team, the Aberdeen IronBirds.
"It's a celebration of baseball and one's life," said Ripken, who set a major league record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games. "I've been proud to be from Harford County and the state of Maryland. Everywhere I went in the Orioles uniform, I've tried to represent the city, the county and the state that I come from."
Harford County eagerly embraced its favorite son with a day of hero worship, replete with balloons, a parade and a proclamation.
Dressed casually in an IronBirds shirt and black jersey shorts, Ripken, 46, climbed - gingerly - into a black Corvette. He helped his mother, Violet, into the convertible and tucked her purse away for her. The two sat side-by-side for the four-block ride down Main Street, waving to fans who lined the street hoping for a chance to see the soon-to-be Hall of Famer.
The Ripkens followed a cavalcade of Harford County Little Leaguers, striding proudly in their uniforms. Kendall Hill, a Little Leaguer from Darlington, was one of them. The night before, the 12-year-old slept beneath a 12-foot poster of Ripken and in his baseball jersey, his mother said.
"He slept with his jersey on - even though it stinks so bad," said his mother, Lynn Hill. "He was so excited. Baseball is his life."
During a rally after the parade, Ripken poked fun at his baldness after being handed a photograph of his late father, longtime Orioles coach Cal Sr., and himself, then with a mop of curly brown hair.
"It's tangible proof I had hair," he said to the audience. "I just didn't know what to do with it."
Ripken thanked Harford's residents for their support and urged children to work hard for their dreams.
"Keep your dreams. Keep working hard. There aren't shortcuts," he said. "If you love the game, and love playing it, and practice a bit, good things come out of it."
For about a half-hour after his speech, Ripken signed an array of memorabilia - a life-size Cal Ripken Jr. cardboard cutout, Orioles flags, baseball bats and gloves.
"I've watched Cal grow up and become a good player and then come back to Harford County with such integrity," said Matt Andrews, a 66-year-old resident from Forest Hill, who wore a Ripken jersey and orange camouflage pants. "One day because of him, Harford County will be a youth mecca for baseball."
The Ripken Youth Baseball Academy, the IronBirds and the Cal Ripken World Series for 11- and 12-year-olds are based in Aberdeen.
Though tumult has enveloped his old team - on Monday the last-place Orioles fired manager Sam Perlozzo as part of an organizational shake-up - Ripken told questioners during a news conference before the parade that he is in no hurry to un-retire.
"I'm enjoying that I have flexibility in my schedule where I can be around my kids and go to games," he said. "Anything that would have me go back to a baseball full-time schedule and travel the way you did as a player, coach or manager or those sorts of things, it would have to be in the future, far from now."
Chase Weber, who will attend Ripken's baseball academy this summer, was 2 when Ripken retired.
"He was a really good baseball player, and I really like him," the 8-year-old Bel Air resident said, beaming as he showed off a baseball with a fresh Ripken autograph.
More on Cal Ripken Jr. at baltimoresun.com/ripken