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Cal is collecting gifts, memories

Ripken won't let his emotions take over, but he feels them growing as his retirement nears.

By BRANT JAMES

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Keepsakes are everywhere for Cal Ripken these days.

They tend to pile up after 20 years in the major leagues, and as his Hall of Fame career meanders through its final weeks with a stop at Tropicana Field, the Orioles third baseman finally has taken time to notice them.

"You kind of try to take it all in because it is your last time," Ripken said Tuesday in a pregame news conference in the Orioles dugout. "It's kind of a desperate approach, but it's one that when you're able to do that, it allows you to focus on the moment instead of looking too far ahead.

"You're up with the bases loaded, you step out and the crowd will be going crazy, and you know the importance of your at-bat and you'll say to yourself, "It's great standing right here."' Area fans and transplanted Orioles supporters clamored for Ripken's attention and autograph before the series opener. He spent nearly 45 minutes leaning on a rail near the dugout, posing for photos and signing autographs.

As part of the official tribute Thursday, the Rays will donate $5,000 to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which promotes youth baseball and tobacco prevention, and will present him with a gift.

Presents collected at farewell stops have included a chair and soil from old Comiskey Park in Chicago and a set of pictures of his father as manager of the minor-league Miami Marlins. The Rangers retired his visiting locker, encasing his game gear from July 26 in a permanent display.

"The farewell tours, even though they are a little hectic at times ... it provided a good opportunity for me to say goodbye," said Ripken, who turns 41 on Friday. "I've appreciated the support I've received all over the country and the signs that come out -- "Thanks for the memories", "We'll miss you" -- they pull at your heart strings a little bit and it gives you an opportunity to interact as best you can and say goodbye."

Ripken started at third base and will do the same Thursday. Whether he starts today, manager Mike Hargrove said, depends on how he feels. He expects Ripken to at least be the designated hitter. Ripken has played in 11 straight games and has homered in each farewell series since the All-Star break. "Cal won't play every night," he said. "Cal will play when he's physically and mentally able to play."

Hargrove at times has had to play the Grinch that stole the Ironman since Ripken announced his retirement June 19. Fans have scrambled to snap up tickets for his final series in their cities, but unlike when he was setting the endurance record with 2,632 consecutive games played, there is no guarantee he will play.

"Fans are sometimes unrealistic," Hargrove said. "I got two or three letters that said I was an insensitive jerk. I'm very sorry they spent their money, but I can't help it. ... Some said they were mad I didn't let him come out and tip his hat. If Cal wants to come out and take his clothes off, fine. ... I'd rather he not."

The memories are plentiful for Ripken even in St. Petersburg, a pup of a big-league city that was nothing but a spring training site when he played in his first pro game at Al Lang Stadium on June 29, 1979. In 1973 his Little League team played in the Southern Regional in Gulfport, lost to Kentucky with him on the mound and was an "emotional mess, but the next day we went deep-sea fishing and we were fine."

After baseball and this tour, he will be fine again, he said.

"I feel comfortable knowing I have a good portion of the season left," he said. "In my own mind I can rationalize or defer those feelings to a point that is far away. That makes it easier to deal with. I know probably it'll get a little more emotional before all is said and done. I can feel it now, it building a little bit. I can't imagine what the last at-bat or last series will be like at this point."

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