Heroes: a Ripken and a Russian

Murray White

October 10, 1990|By Murray White

BETHESDA — Bethesda.---THERE' A LOT of talk these days about role models. Who is one? Nelson Mandela. Who isn't one? Andrew Dice Clay. Allow me to put forth a couple of my current heroes.

I emphasize current, because in my 36 years as a Caucasian suburban male my idols at one time or another have included Rembrandt, Robert DeNiro, Sonny Jurgensen, John Steinbeck, Maggie Smith, Bogart, Toni Morrison, Dickens and Minnie Minoso.

A man whom I presently try to emulate is Cal Ripken. The Senior. Yes, the man Sports Illustrated described as ''constructed of rawhide lines pulled taut.'' Not his son, Cal Jr., who is my favorite baseball player. Cal Sr. is currently the third-base coach of the Baltimore Orioles. He's a lifelong baseball man. The manager of the team a few years back. The papa of two of their starters.

I don't look to Cal Senior as a model for my behavior because he's the father of Junior and Bill. That's nice, but it's just a bonus. What I like about Senior is his discipline. I was never in the military, so never went through basic training. In a sense, I regret it, because I never had that tough drill sergeant we all love to hate but secretly are grateful to.

For me, Cal Senior is my imaginary drill sergeant. He's a take-no-guff kind of guy. But also patient. If you work as hard as you can, no matter how badly you do, he won't get all over you. He'll help you. Teach you. As long as you go halfway to meet him. But, slack off and he'll give you as much static as he gives a home-plate umpire who blew a call.

A lot of role models could teach you discipline, Vince Lombardi for instance. But Cal Senior is also a gentleman. He is of the old chivalry school -- where the man goes out to fight the dragons (or Yankees) and the maiden stays behind to keep house and raise the infielders. He's a straight-backed gent who opens doors for ladies, waits till they sit down, and cuts them slack on the road.

Make him mad and he's an angry cuss, full of fight and caterwauling. But follow his example and he'll lead you to a righteous realm, where men and women walk proudly upright.

The world in which heroes like Cal Senior walk is immeasurably more civilized because of individuals like my second role model today. His name: Viktor Baldin. Country: Soviet Union. Occupation: architect and scholar. Age: 72. All he did was return 362 works of museum quality art to their rightful owner without asking for a finder's fee.

The story is a bit complicated, but the heroism is not. In 1945, when Baldin was a 25-year old captain in the Soviet army, he found a hoard of hundreds of drawings and watercolors stashed haphazardly in the basement of an old castle 90 miles outside Berlin. He picked out the best ones and kept them in suitcases until he went home to Russia after the war.

What exactly did he have in those suitcases? For starters, 28 drawings by Albrecht Durer. Works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens, Monet, Manet, Goya and Corot. That's like all the charter members of the art world's Hall of Fame. Finally, a sketch Vincent Van Gogh made preparatory to painting ''Starry Night.''

Finding the preparatory sketch, which had been listed as ''destroyed'' by the Metropolitan Museum, is comparable to someone discovering long-lost, high-quality tapes of a 1965 recording session involving the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix on lead. The sketch for ''Starry Night'' must be worth millions and millions of dollars. A a Van Gogh painting sold at auction for over $80 million.

So, what does Viktor Baldin do, after keeping it and 361 other works in storage for 45 years, during which time strained relations between the Soviet Union and West Germany prevented their return? Does he consign them to Sotheby's or Christie's to make a killing? Does he try to discreetly sell them back to their owner, the Kunsthalle museum in Bremen, Germany?

No, he does the civilized thing. The gentlemanly thing. The heroic thing. He gives them all back for free. Just like that, no strings attached.

In explanation of why he did not sell the masterpieces, he spoke words that should be memorized by every American school child: ''I just could not degrade the art or myself.'' Can you imagine an American saying that?

Heroism in the face of materialism is less obvious than the kind of heroism displayed by Cal Senior every day in his coach's box. But it is based on the same concept of dignity. Viktor Baldin could not live with himself if he tried to put a price on great art. He knows that the human race needs great art of the past if we are to learn how to behave wisely in the present and future. As he explained: ''The war was an episode, but the art is eternal.''

Don't expect any such pronouncements from tight-lipped Cal Senior. With a crusty guy like him, you have to observe to discover his meanings as you have to carefully observe an art work in a museum to reap its full benefits.

Long after the won-loss records of Cal Senior's Orioles teams are as ancient as Durer drawings are today, the values which he and Viktor Baldin expressed in their own ways will be keeping human life worth living.

*Mr. White works at a Washington think tank.

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