BALTIMORE. - At about 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6 - six years and one month to the day that No.8 rose to an elite status reserved only for icons of the game - Cal Ripken Jr. entered the home clubhouse at Camden Yards for the last time as a Baltimore Orioles player.
All eyes were on the 6-foot-4, 220-pound giant of the game as he made his way through the clubhouse, his 7-year-old son, Ryan, trailing behind. People have been watching Ripken throughout the country during his farewell tour in his 21st and final major league season, but yesterday was a day to watch his every move because they would be his last as a professional ballplayer.
When someone who has gotten 3,184 hits, 431 home runs and driven in 1,695 runs decides to stop playing, it is something worth noting. When someone who has done all that and set the standard for guts and glory by playing in 2,632 consecutive games leaves the field of play forever, everyone wants to soak in every little move that he makes, because the likes of Cal Ripken Jr. will never pass this way again.
Even his closest friend on the team, Brady Anderson, admitted that his teammates have been caught up in the moments leading up to this final day. "We were all kind of watching him," he said.
In the end, Ripken had three full lockers in the corner of the clubhouse, filled with bats, mementos and all sorts of items presented by fans, and also things to be signed and presented by Ripken to others. Everyone wants a piece of the guts and the glory before it becomes just a memory.
Ripken reached into his locker and tossed a game jersey to teammate David Segui, who thanked Ripken and then asked him to sign it. The night before, an hour after the game with the Boston Red Sox ended, there were more than 3,000 people in the stands hoping to get something, anything, signed by Ripken. It would be the last time Ripken would sign autographs as a professional ballplayer.
A few minutes later, Sam Perlozzo walked all the way across the clubhouse to shake Ripken's hand. Perlozzo is a baseball man, an Orioles coach since 1996, and has grown close to Ripken because of their appreciation to the right way to play the game.
"You don't find many players, or people, like Cal Ripken," he said. "It's more than what he has done on the field, though. I think people have reacted to Cal in all of the visiting ballparks as a person. That's what the tributes have been for."
He has come to represent more than just greatness on the field. Cal Ripken is what people want to believe in.
That's what made last night so difficult. This is not a time for symbols of faith and hope to be leaving.
Before last night's game, Ripken said he didn't believe he would feel a void in his life after his playing career.
"The way I've gone about my job and approached baseball, I've tried to lay it on the line every single day and come to the ballpark and grind it out through the hard times," he said. "That's the way Dad taught me to play baseball - to bring honor to the game and come to the ballpark ready to play."
When it became time to prepare to play - the last time Ripken would prepare for a game as a professional ballplayer, he took batting practice in the tunnel underneath the ballpark. Then he walked into the trainer's room and got his ankles wrapped by Richie Bancells, who has been taping Ripken's ankles since the days when they were together at Class AAA Rochester.
He would be prepared for the game, but not the pre-game ceremony, which turned out to be a tribute to his late father, Cal, Sr., as much as it was to Junior himself.
With Ripken on a stage on the field, with wife Kelly, daughter Rachel, son Ryan and mother Vi, sitting by his side, there were speeches and presentations, including one by former President Bill Clinton. Orioles minority owner Tom Clancy was the lone club official to make a speech and presentation. Owner Peter Angelos stood in the dugout, never making an appearance on the field, which was the best thing he could have done to contribute to the tone of the evening. A cascade of boos would have ruined the moment.
Four of the five Orioles whose numbers previously have been retired - Earl Weaver (4), Frank Robinson (20), Jim Palmer (22) and Eddie Murray (33) - all came on the field and unveiled the latest one - Ripken's No.8, a large, silver replica to join the other numbers on Babe Ruth Plaza past center field.
But the moments that hit home for Ripken were those that connected him to his father - and his mother. Ripken was moved by a large portrait unveiled of Cal, Sr. - a present from the owner - and Kelly had to pat Ripken on the back several times, as he grew more emotional.
Then he and his mother walked to the Orioles' dugout to unveil a plaque honoring Cal Sr., and what he contributed to the organization as a minor league manager and major league manager and coach. He taught several generations of Orioles the right way to play the game, the way Ripken is hoping to teach youngsters at his Aberdeen baseball school.
Then, before the start of the game, Ripken stood at home plate, and took the ceremonial first pitch from his mom. It was the most fitting moment of the evening, because while Cal Sr. may have taught Ripken how to be a professional ballplayer, it was Vi who would play catch with a young Cal Jr. when his father was on the road.