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Orioles will celebrate Cal Ripken Jr. (and a pennant race) Thursday

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The Orioles will unveil a bronze sculpture of Cal Ripken Jr. at Camden Yards on Thursday, the 17th anniversary of the day Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played.

There was probably a time early in the season when fans expected the Ripken unveiling — the fifth in a series of six honoring the club's greats — to be the only bright spot in another dreary September of Orioles baseball. But in a twist that has shocked the baseball world, the current team is an even better story than the nostalgia.

Ripken, in an interview Wednesday evening before a gala honoring him and former teammate Eddie Murray at the Hilton Baltimore, said he couldn't be more pleased with the timing.

"I remember hoping that Sept. 6 , 1995 was going to be all about the playoff run for us," he said, reflecting on the day he broke Gehrig's record. "But we fell out of the playoff chase a little bit, and the focus became more on the streak. As my statue's being unveiled, it's a huge, meaningful series with the New York Yankees. So I feel really great about that. It ought to create extra excitement for the fans."

Coming home from another winning road trip, the Orioles will kick off a four-game series with the Yankees in which they could take a significant lead in the American League East.

Ripken said he senses an unusual momentum behind this year's team based on its confidence in tight games.

"It's an enigma in some ways," he said. "There's a magic to them about winning the close ball games. There's a confidence and a poise when they're playing in those tie games. Extra innings, they're almost assured to win."

Ripken, who retired in 2001, played a significant role on the last Orioles team to hold a portion of the divisional lead as late as Sept. 4. That 1997 club not only won the division; it was the last Orioles team to post a winning record.

In the ensuing years of losing, Ripken jerseys have often outnumbered the jerseys of current Orioles on the backs of fans at Camden Yards. Many Baltimoreans who traveled to Cooperstown, N.Y., for Ripken's Hall-of-Fame induction in 2007 spoke in bittersweet terms, worried that they would never have another Orioles team to celebrate with such fervor.

Celebrating Ripken, of course, is nothing new for this town.

A national television audience watched 17 years ago as the record-breaking game paused and Ripken circled Camden Yards, thanking fans who had showered him with warmth since his rookie year.

At his last game in Oct. 2001, emotion welled in Ripken as Orioles owner Peter Angelos gave him a charcoal portrait of his late father, former Orioles coach and manager Cal Ripken Sr.

And on a Sunday afternoon in July 2007, a record 75,000 fans swarmed Cooperstown to watch Ripken enter the Hall with Tony Gwynn.

"I view this one as less about me, even though I have a statue," he said of Thursday's unveiling. "It's more about celebrating Oriole history and being connected again. You see old friends. You see old ballplayers."

It's hard to believe it, but baseball's "Iron Man" turned 52 last month. He still has the piercing blue eyes, but his body has thickened. His son, Ryan, is the ballplayer in the family now, just starting his freshman year at the University of South Carolina.

One of the joys of this season's statue unveilings has been contemplating the myriad connections between the honorees. Ripken, for example, grew up idolizing Brooks Robinson. Earl Weaver was the manager who insisted he wasn't too big to play shortstop. Jim Palmer was still the rotation's ace when Ripken was a rookie. He and Murray were the superstars of Baltimore's last World Series winner in 1983. Then, Ripken played for Frank Robinson during the club's joyous "Why Not?" season of 1989.

"Just the connection to Orioles history, I think it's been a phenomenal idea, and the execution has been better than I think anyone thought," Ripken said. "It's very emotional in many ways. You hear the stories, you hear the common thread of Orioles baseball. I've enjoyed all of them."

Ripken said one of the highlights of his week would be getting on stage with Murray for the Wednesday gala, celebrating their induction into the Sports Legends Museum Hall of Fame. The two men planned to recount some of their moments together for an audience of fans and former teammates. Though Murray — who recently paid $358,000 to settle an insider trading case against him — is known as a man of few words, Ripken said he always gets a kick out of seeing his former teammate.

"Big Ed, he took me under his wing when I came up to the big leagues," he said. "He saw that I was a little intimidated, a little scared, and he saw the talent in me. He pulled me under his wing and helped me. We had a kinship right from the beginning."

The gates at Camden Yards will open at 5 p.m. Thursday, and the Ripken festivities will begin at 5:15. A sellout crowd is expected, and all fans will receive miniature replicas of the Ripken statue.

The unveiling was supposed to be the last of six. But the ceremony for Brooks Robinson had to be rescheduled from May 12 to Sept. 29, because Robinson, who plans to attend the Ripken unveiling, was still recuperating from a bad fall in January.

It looks more and more like that final homestand of the season will also feature meaningful baseball games.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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