WHY DID YOU and Cal become such good friends?" a reporter asked Brady Anderson before Cal Ripken's last game last night at Camden Yards.

"We're alike," Anderson said. "We're not that sentimental."

Suddenly, it was clear how the evening would unfold, and did unfold - with more emotion from others than from Ripken.

Not that he didn't succumb at times as a shower of gifts and tributes rained down on him before, during and after the game. He needed three minutes to compose himself before giving his farewell speech.

But make no mistake, the gifts and tributes were more for everyone else - the fans at the park, his teammates, the public - than for the man himself. As Anderson said, he's not that sentimental. And hey, most importantly, this was still a night when there was a game to play.

That, clearly, poignantly, was foremost on Ripken's mind as the final act of his Hall of Fame career played out before a packed house on a cool evening. The testimonials were great. You knew it would mean so much to him later, in time. But right here, right now, playing the game once more was the only gift he really wanted.

One more chance to savor the privilege of dirtying a major-league uniform.

One more chance to experience the thrill of the grass.

He never saw it as anything less than the ultimate blessing, never to be taken for granted, and he didn't, not for a single day, not even on the last day of his career, with the rest of the baseball world watching and weeping around him.

Everyone else wanted to hear the flowery words of praise. Ripken just wanted to hear "Play ball!"

One more time.

Why change now? The game has always been the No. 1 thing for him, a sacred and inviolate treasure. Always the first priority. Never to be subverted, belittled or tainted in any way.

It's the simplest of acts, respecting the game, but in the end, as the clock wound down, what better way for him to do justice to his career?

The speeches? Gosh, they were great. The David Letterman "Top Ten?" list? Nothing short of hilarious. The gifts? Hey, they were wonderful, especially the portrait of his father, which choked him up. The tears? You weren't human if you didn't shed a few on such a night, watching one of the hallmarks of your younger life finally confess to age.

"A lot of people [are] sad about this because they're not going to get to see him play anymore," Anderson said.

But what about Ripken himself? Any sense of sadness?

"No," Anderson said. "Because I think he's one of the few players in the history of any sport that doesn't have any regrets as he leaves the game. His is a retirement like no other in the history of baseball, I'd imagine."

Everyone else wanted it rich, with song and emotion. He wanted it simple, cutting ovations as short as he could, doffing his cap quickly, keeping the game moving, limiting his time in the spotlight.

One more night as just another guy in the game, the way he saw himself. One more night of the sport and its infinite crafts. Trying to out-guess the pitcher. Knowing the hitters and trying to be in the right place in the field. Shooting the breeze with the other team's third base coach. The little things. The big things. Winning. Losing. Surviving the highs and lows.

He loved it, loved it all, and this was his one more chance to romp in it, his one more chance to relish his beloved math of playing one game out of a season of 162, baseball's innate "everydayness."

As strange as it sounds, amid all the pomp, he just wanted to play. Wanted to honor the game, play it fair, play it right one more time.

That's why he wanted no part of a stunt such as playing an inning at shortstop, just to honor his achievements there. His father, a font of old-school tradition, would have hated the idea. You don't trick up a baseball game, you play it. And his son played nine innings at third base last night.

That's why his body language spoke volumes throughout the pre-game ceremony, during which he sat with his head often down and his arms crossed at his chest - the portrait of a man who had to get through something to get to what he really wanted.

The chance to play ball.

"He's still trying to improve," the Orioles' Jerry Hairston said with a smile before the game. "I saw him [working extra] in the [batting] cage a couple of weeks ago."

Working hard, right to the end. That was the story of Cal Ripken's last game, the story of an old-school guy who surely appreciated the pomp, but just wanted the game.

The music was stirring. The videos were wonderful. Putting the '82 Orioles back on the field for the first pitch was a marvelous touch.

But what will I remember? Ripken flinging his bat in disgust after popping up on the second pitch of his second at-bat, in the bottom of the fifth. Mad as hell as he jogged to first. Should have hit the darn pitch. Blew it.

Alive and well to the end, competing hard, playing baseball.

You can be sure that's what he'll remember.

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