Cal Ripken Jr. touches home with victory

It was a victory lap for the ages. Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla pushed Cal Ripken out of the Orioles' dugout, and off the game's all-time Iron Man went.

Down the right-field line, shaking hands with fans in the front row. Into the outfield, greeting the grounds crew and police officers. Above the center-field wall, where fans tumbled out of the bleachers as he leaped to slap them five.

Ripken's mother, Vi, leaned against his father, Cal Sr. Earlier, Senior had clapped and waved from his luxury box. Now he stood in his suit, hands behind his back, this incredibly tough man, biting his lower lip to fight back tears.

Junior had done it. One more time, the banner had dropped from the warehouse, revealing the number so many thought unattainable. The number 2,131. Never have four digits produced so many tears.

Grown men cried at Lou Gehrig's retirement ceremony 56 years ago, but those tears were born out of tragedy, the knowledge that Gehrig was seriously ill. These tears were born out of joy. And hometown pride. And love.

The game was delayed 22 minutes, 15 seconds. For a while, it seemed like play would never resume. For a while, it seemed Camden Yards would crumble from emotion.

He's just always there, you know? That's what was so celebrated, that's what this was all about. He's there when his team needs him. There now that his sport needs him. And there for a city that lost its football team and baseball glory long ago.

It's a simple virtue, perhaps, but in this harried age, simple can be remarkable. Such is the magic surrounding 2,131. A dozen years ago, Ripken was a local boy making good. Now, thanks to the streak, he's a national hero.

President Clinton shook both fists in exultation shortly after the celebration began. Vice President Albert Gore stood next to him, cheering. Sparklers and then fireworks went off on the stadium roof, evoking "The Natural."

In another box, Joe DiMaggio stood next to fellow Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. DiMaggio, two months short of his 81st birthday, was Gehrig's teammate. He, too, looked overcome by the moment.

Orioles second baseman Manny Alexander caught the popup that made the game official in the fifth inning. Instantly, the crowd roared. Police lined the outfield. And the Orioles' bullpen emptied, players and coaches running into the first base dugout, eager to join the celebration.

Ripken shook hands with his teammates, then left the dugout and jogged to where his wife, Kelly, was sitting. He removed his white Orioles jersey and handed it to her, revealing a black T-shirt underneath. On the back, it said, "2,130+, Hugs and Kisses for Daddy."

The TV cameras kept coming back to his mother, Vi. One moment, she was hugging her middle son, Fred. The next moment, she was holding her hands over her face. Always, she was crying.

Back on the field, Ripken picked up his son Ryan, 2, and kissed his daughter, Rachel, 5. Rachel wasn't having any of it. All night, she kept wiping her hand against her face, wiping off daddy's kisses. She wouldn't join him on the field, either.

It was so warm, so touching, so wonderfully, gloriously human. Ripken plays the game with such precision, he is sometimes described as a robot. Rarely does he show emotion. But on this night, he appeared relieved, and humbled, and so, so happy.

He touched hands with his brother, Bill, through the home-plate screen. Bill's wife, Candace, blew him kisses. The TV cameras showed Orioles general manager Roland Hemond crying. Hemond, a career baseball man who has seen it all.

Ripken earned this. Oh, how he earned this. In spring training, he said he wasn't sure how he would react to the attention surrounding the streak. Now the verdict is in: He reacted gracefully, exquisitely, remarkably.

Whatever the impact on his offensive statistics, however selfish his motives might have once appeared, no one will dare scoff at his accomplishment, the ordinary turned extraordinary, the methodical beauty.

There were eight curtain calls on this night, one after Ripken's home run -- his third in three days -- and seven during the fifth-inning celebration. The crowd chanted, "We want Cal! We Want Cal!" Palmeiro and Bonilla gave their little push.

And, the victory lap began.

The closest thing you see to it in sports is during Olympic track and field, but how many Olympians win gold medals in their hometown? At one point, Ripken grabbed a man in the front row. Maybe an acquaintance. Maybe an old friend.

In left-center, he slapped palms with the Orioles' relievers, now back in the bullpen. He took a special moment with longtime bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. As always, he kept going, and going, and going.

In front of the left-field bleachers, reaching up to fans in the first row. Down the left-field line, past the $5,000 seats to benefit research of Lou Gehrig's disease. And in front of the California Angels' dugout, where the evening's opponents awaited.

One by one, the Angels congratulated Ripken. The Whitney Houston song, "One Moment in Time," blared over the sound system. So much cheering. So much crying.

When Frank Robinson hit a ball out of Memorial Stadium, it was marked with a banner that said, "Here." The appropriate banner for Ripken would say, "There."

There for his team. There for his sport. There for his city.

There in heart. There in spirit. There in body, and in soul.

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