- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

BALTIMORE Under the bright lights blocking out the October evening sky, a 41-year-old man will say goodbye to a child's game tonight while fans across America offer their own farewell to a baseball legend.
Cal Ripken will wear a Baltimore Orioles uniform as a player for the last time, playing his 3,001st game for the franchise he literally grew up with. After 21 seasons, countless records, the longest consecutive-games streak in history and autograph after autograph after autograph, baseball's Iron Man is calling it a career.
And the city of Baltimore is preparing to soak it all in.
The Orioles aren't revealing details of the proceedings at Camden Yards for tonight's game against the Boston Red Sox, but a celebration of proportions not seen in these parts since Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak in 1995 is expected.
Few baseball players ever have been given the kind of sendoff Ripken has experienced since announcing June 19 that this would be his final season. Each town the Orioles have visited during the last 31/2 months has honored the future Hall of Famer in one way or another, from a retired locker in the visitor's clubhouse in Texas to a showering of gifts in New York.
Through it all, Ripken has managed to control his emotions, despite a number of moving tributes, many of them also paying homage to his father, the late Cal Ripken Sr.
This final farewell, though, figures to produce plenty of emotion, both from Ripken and from the crowd of nearly 50,000 expected to attend the game.
"I've often wondered during this process how I was going to get to this point, whether I could get to the finish line," Ripken said between games of yesterday's day-night doubleheader. "Because it does play with your emotions. It does pull at your heart a little bit. Early on, I was able to harden myself to those feelings and control them just by thinking, 'You have a lot of baseball left, and you can't be worrying about what's going to happen the last day or the last series.' But as the games started to go away and I started to get closer and closer, the emotions started to get stronger and stronger."
These last few weeks have been draining for Ripken, both physically and emotionally. He is hounded everywhere he goes, for interviews, for autographs, for tributes. Everyone wants a piece of a legend before he fades into the sunset.
Through it all, Ripken has remained true to his image, both on and off the field. He has handled all the attention with grace and humility. And he'll be penciled in the Orioles' starting lineup tonight for the 25th straight game, a feat unheard of since he voluntarily ended his streak at 2,632 on Sept. 20, 1998.
"To get through something like this, you have to be very tough mentally besides physically," said Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove. "And Cal has demonstrated that throughout his entire career."
The rigorous schedule and the pressure to perform up to standard have taken a toll on the Iron Man. He struggled through an 0-for-33 hitting slump during the last two weeks, the longest drought of his career, before finally breaking through for a single Thursday night.
"I like to keep my engine running at a smooth level," Ripken said. "And with all the celebrations dating back to July, it seems like my emotions have been going up and down all year. Especially when it gets down to the last month and the last road trip and the last two cities, I could kind of feel it building inside. Not that there was some desperation, but I really wanted to do well. I was swinging probably as hard as I've ever swung, out of control."
If anything, Ripken has held up better in recent weeks than the thousands of fans who have flocked to ballparks across the country to catch one last glimpse of the retiring star, who is a lock for Baseball Hall of Fame induction when he becomes eligible in five years.
"I'm not sad that I'm leaving," he said. "I've had a lot of people cry in front of me, fans who were saying, 'Please don't go.' And I find myself consoling them: 'It's going to be OK, all right?' It's kind of funny how those emotions play with you. That means you've had a pretty significant career and had a lot of good things happen to you."
Tonight's events pregame ceremonies begin at 6, with the game at 7:05 and Ripken offering his final farewell after the last out will feature plenty of sentimentality. They won't, however, feature Ripken switching from third base to shortstop, where he played his first 15 seasons.
Hargrove recently broached the subject with Ripken, who played one inning at his old position at this year's All-Star Game at the urging of Texas Rangers superstar Alex Rodriguez. Ripken said no thanks.
"I'd like it to be as normal as possible in the game," he said. "The only reason it's significant is because it's the last one. It doesn't change how you should be going about playing it. In my opinion, I'd rather play third."
Ripken doesn't know what to expect tonight, whether he'll rise to the occasion as he has done so many times and hit a home run, whether he'll break down in tears while delivering his final remarks.
He does know one thing: After 21 seasons as a major league ballplayer, he's ready to say goodbye.
"When I look back, I don't have the kind of regrets that say I wish I would have played more or I wish I would have taken it more seriously, or that I wish I had taken care of myself better some of the things I heard earlier when I was a young guy asking the older guys when they were leaving the game," he said. "I don't think I'll have that void. I'll find that competitive spirit in other things. I've had my fill. I've had a lot of great times in between those white lines."

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