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Saturday, October 6
Updated: October 7, 2:56 PM ET
As goodbyes go, this is as good as it gets

By Jayson Stark

BALTIMORE -- In America, we hate goodbyes. And we love goodbyes. But mostly, we don't know how to say goodbye.

Cal Ripken
Cal Ripken Jr. was the center of attention, taking the field before struggling to start his goodbye speech.

Too bad all of our goodbyes can't be as cool as the goodbye Baltimore bestowed on the great Cal Ripken Jr., on a crisp Saturday evening in October.

This is how you say goodbye. This is how Baltimore said goodbye to a man it loves even more than crabcakes:

  • With his No. 8 carved into the outfield grass.

  • With none other than William Jefferson Clinton -- yes, the former president -- stopping by to say, "Cal, I just came by to see your last game ... and to thank you for all you've meant to all of us who love the game of baseball."

  • With fireworks soaring through the sky behind him, as a stadium full of people chanted, "Thank you, Cal."

  • With his picture projected 100 feet high on the warehouse beyond Camden Yards.

  • With his children waiting at the first-base line to hug him as he left this baseball field for the final time.

  • With the governor proclaiming it "Cal Ripken Day" in the whole darned state.

  • With the mayor -- dressed in a politically correct Orioles jacket, of course -- naming a street after a baseball player (no, not Luis Matos).

  • With the commissioner of baseball announcing he'd just created a Cal Ripken Jr. Award for any future player who plays in every game of the season.

  • With David Letterman paying his respects via the miracle of Jumbotronics, sending in a top 10 list of Cal Ripken career highlights, including the little-known tale of how Cal had to end The Streak "to watch a `Golden Girls' marathon on Lifetime."

  • With a new North American record for most video-montage tributes in one evening, including taped accolades from every world-famous baseball personality except possibly Lou Gehrig.

  • With Al Bumbry and Scott McGregor and the starting lineup of the 1981 Orioles -- the lineup from Ripken's very first game -- running out onto the field before the first inning, wearing their sooooooo-'80s white, black and orange caps.

  • With the lights in the Legg Mason office building, off in the distance beyond the ballpark, lit up resplendently to form the No. 8.

  • With tears. With cheers. With flashbulbs popping. With 48,807 people holding up orange "thank you" cards every time their hero arrived at home plate.

    This, friends, was how you say goodbye.

    "It was totally overwhelming," said Cal Ripken Jr. of his 3,001st and final game on a baseball diamond. "When you just shake your head and think back over your career and all the good moments you've had just because you're a baseball player, and the overpowering love from the stands, it blows you away."

    It blew him away. It blew a stadium full of otherwise normal people away. How could it not? These last 20 years, Cal Ripken Jr. may have been responsible for more crying by regular old adult people than "One Life to Live."

    Oh, his final night wasn't perfect, of course. In many ways, it wasn't up to the usual fairy-tale standards Ripken has set for himself over the years whenever the spotlight found him.

    He didn't hit his customary majestic home run, the kind that cause thousands of grown-ups to forget to breathe for several seconds.

    He didn't even get a hit, in fact -- going 0-for-3, with a long line drive to left, a pop-up to short and a floating, frustrating, eighth-inning fly ball to center.

    His team forgot to win, too. The Orioles lost to the Boston Red Sox, 5-1, getting exactly one hit over the first seven innings against another star savoring the twilight, David Cone.

    And had this been one of those usual Cal scripts, the ones that seem to be produced by MGM instead of MLB, he sure wouldn't have ended his career in the on-deck circle, watching Brady Anderson strike out as a stadium full of Ripken-ites chanted, "We want Cal."

    But this night wasn't about the ball game. It wasn't about Ripken's final line in the box score. It wasn't about any of that.

    This was goodbye. And even Cone felt overwhelmed by the power of standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from one of the icons of his sport.

    "It was an honor," Cone said, after what might have been the final game of his own storied career. "We juggled the rotation so I could have this game. That was part of the plan. I thought it was such an honor, I wanted to pitch. I knew it would be a tough game to pitch, and I thought I was perfect for the job. I knew I could handle it."

    Three straight at-bats, Cone showed his respect for Ripken by throwing only fastballs -- "but I didn't throw him any cookies, either," Cone said.

    Ripken almost pounded the second fastball of the night into the stands and the storybooks. ("I hit that ball really, really hard," he said.) But leftfielder Troy O'Leary ran it down on the warning track.

    Cone has seen enough of those Ripken magic moments, though, that it wouldn't have surprised him had that ball left the premises. And Cone said he knew exactly how he would have reacted, even if he'd been the one serving up the pitch that produced that magic moment.

    "I would have been proud," he said. "I would have stepped off the mound and waited for him to come out of the dugout. Even if he'd hit a home run, I would have clapped myself. I know what those moments mean."

    It turned out to be the closest Ripken came to one of those moments.

    His fifth-inning pop-up was as uneventful as they come. And his eighth-inning fly ball to center was memorable only because it was the last at-bat he would ever have. And the first time he'd ever made a curtain call after a routine fly ball.

    Final inning
    Then he trotted out to his position for the top of the ninth inning. It was 10:03 p.m., Ripken Daylight Time. He took his ground balls. He shook hands with Red Sox third-base coach Gene Lamont. It was like every inning he'd ever spent -- and like none of them.

    Cal Ripken
    The Camden Yards crowd had nothing but adoration for Ripken on Saturday. The feeling appeared to be mutual.

    After the night in 1995 when he passed Lou Gehrig, he described the dizzying events of the evening as "an out-of-body experience." But this, he said, was different.

    "This one wasn't as dream-like," he said, "because in '95, there was a certain aspect of the record itself that was dream-like. I don't know if that was because it linked together the two eras. But there was a ghost-like feeling around the whole experience.

    "But for me, personally, today, it was the end of a career and the end of a part of a dream. So as I was running out on the field, I was excited to go out there between innings.

    "Sometimes, when you've been playing a long time, the time can drag between innings. But today, I wanted to run out there and know I had nine innings left, and I wanted to throw the ball around the diamond just like I'd always done. I did it. I enjoyed it. And I appreciated it, because that's what I did all those years."

    But these Ripken scripts never seem to end this way. So when the Orioles came to bat in the ninth, they knew they needed two hits to get Ripken one more trip to the batter's box.

    Anderson, his longtime friend, was the hitter in front of him in the order. He looked at Ripken and asked: "You want to hit again?" Ripken nodded.

    "OK," Anderson told him. "I'll make that happen."

    So he dug in against Boston closer Ugueth Urbina with two outs in the ninth and worked the count full. The "We want Cal" chants started softly in the left-field corner, then gradually spread throughout the ballpark, growing louder and louder with each pitch.

    Ripken waved his bat in the on-deck circle, thinking: "That had to be the most pressurized at-bat ever, trying to get me to the plate one more time."

    But Urbina fired one last riding fastball, chest-high. Anderson chased it and missed. And as 48,000 people groaned, Ripken strolled over, patted his buddy on the helmet and told him, "Way to go."

    The Red Sox could have intentionally walked Anderson, of course, with a runner on second, to let Ripken get that one last chance. But Boston manager Joe Kerrigan, a former Orioles minor leaguer, said that would have been thoroughly un-Ripkenesque.

    "I think the integrity of the game is what Cal Ripken stands for," Kerrigan said. "When you mess with the integrity of the game, I don't care what the circumstances are. That's not what that man over there represents."

    So there would be no more at-bats. But there would be one more moving Ripken moment.

    Saying goodbye
    At 10:50 p.m., Ripken approached a spotlit microphone in an otherwise-darkened stadium. He attempted to begin reading a speech he'd prepared. The crowd hushed. His face appeared on the Jumbotron. Then it became clear:

    He couldn't speak.

    It took him almost five minutes to utter a word. He heard people chanting, "One more year." He heard them screaming, "Thank you, Cal." He thought of what this moment was and what had led him to it.

    "You can imagine," he said later, "why somebody would get choked up and not be able to actually speak. Everybody should experience that."

    Finally, though, he began his speech, to these people who worshipped him.

    "As a kid," he said, "I had this dream, and I had parents that encouraged that dream. Then I became part of this organization -- the Baltimore Orioles -- that helped me fulfill that dream. Imagine playing for my hometown team for my whole career.

    "And I have a wife and children who helped me share and savor the fruits of that dream. And I've had teammates who have filled my career with unbelievable moments -- and you fans who have loved the game and have shared your love with me.

    "Tonight we close the chapter of this dream, my playing career. But I have other dreams," Cal Ripken said.

    Today, he begins the search for the fulfillment of those other dreams. Knowing Ripken -- how driven he is, what a perfectionist he is, what a caring human being he is -- he is bound to succeed.

    But no matter what kind of arena his next at-bat comes in, he will never have one of these kinds of nights. The ballpark jammed and pulsating. A bat in his hands. A tear in his eye. A 20-year love affair with a city and a sport enveloping him.

    It was time to say goodbye. And this, friends, was how you say goodbye.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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