Baltimore Baseball's Iron Man has become solid gold at the box office.
Since Cal Ripken Jr. announced on June 19 that he would end his 21-year career after this season, his march to retirement has created a nonstop parade to the ticket window in Baltimore and ballparks throughout the country.
The Orioles sold 33,000 seats on the day of the announcement, and more than 200,000 tickets over the past month. The team usually sells about 30,000 tickets a week.
"It's been a huge spike for us," said Matt Dryer, the Orioles director of sales. "People are excited about this young team, but Cal is the major factor in our increased numbers."
Ripken's popularity long ago extended beyond Baltimore, and for that reason the future Hall of Famer also has been a huge draw on the road this summer.
Four days after hitting a dramatic home run in his final All-Star game, the 40-year-old third baseman helped attract a sellout crowd of 50,069 on July 14 for his final game in Atlanta.
The Ripken Show arrived in Miami the next day, and the Florida Marlins drew 25,285 fans some 8,000 more than their average this season.
Everyone, it seems, wants to see Cal.
"His presence definitely helped," Marlins spokesman Devin Edmunds said.
Ripken has received standing ovations at every stadium he's appeared in since the announcement. Twice in Atlanta, he sheepishly emerged from the Baltimore dugout for a curtain call.
"You don't often get that sort of treatment at other ballparks," Ripken said. "To have the crowd ask for curtain calls on the road, that's a strange feeling. A good one, but it's strange at the same time. So far, it's been just one big celebration."
Ripken hasn't been this popular at the box office since 1995, when the Orioles' durable third baseman reached Iron Man status by breaking Lou Gehrig's remarkable record of playing in 2,131 straight games. Ripken went on to play in 2,632 consecutive games before voluntarily ending the streak in 1998.
Now, as he enters the final stage of his remarkable career, Ripken is again a major drawing card.
The Orioles spent millions of dollars this season promoting "The Kids" on a revamped roster, yet the team's oldest player remains its most marketable attraction. Ripken is no longer an everyday player, but he can still put fannies in the seats.
The Orioles sold out the final home series of the season, Sept. 21-23 against the New York Yankees, on the day of Ripken's retirement announcement. Now the team is moving toward selling out the rest of its home games in September.
"As the window of opportunity closes, people are looking to take their third and fourth choices," said Bill Stetka, the Orioles director of public relations. "We normally sell a lot of weekend dates over the summer, but every game is picking up."
It's become a nationwide phenomenon. Within 24 hours of Ripken's retirement announcement, Yankee Stadium sold out for Sept. 30, the Orioles' last scheduled game of the season.
For at least one day, the most coveted ticket in the Big Apple won't be for Broadway's "The Producers."
The Orioles are working out plans to celebrate Ripken's career during his final 21 home games, a number that coincides with the years he's been in the majors, all with Baltimore. Stetka said the tribute will intensify during the last eight games (Ripken wears No. 8), and will reach a climax for the final home series.
Barring an injury, Ripken most certainly will play in all three games against the Yankees. But there will be times before then when Ripken will spend the entire game on the bench.
"The days I'm not playing, I just try to do the best I can to be more visible before the game. I'll sign autographs or throw near the dugout before the game," he said. "Of course, the best way to be seen is in the game. I've been playing two out of three, but I don't rule out the possibility that at some point I could play all three games of a series."
Even when he's replaced by a stand-in, the star of the show is still in the house. For most fans, that's enough.
"He's visible, whether he plays or not," Dryer said. "People just want to see him. That in itself is something, and now they've only got two more months to see him in uniform."