In 1930, Babe Ruth was asked how he felt about requesting more money ($80,000 a year) to play baseball than President Herbert Hoover was paid. The Babe replied, "I had a better year than he did." Without getting into comparisons with that former Yale first baseman, George Bush, let us consider Cal Ripken Jr.'s year. It was, one could argue, the best 1991 enjoyed by any Marylander:
Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. Chosen Major League Player of the Year by both The Sporting News and the Associated Press. Picked as Most Valuable Player in the American League by the baseball writers. Awarded a Gold Glove (best fielder in the league at shortstop, baseball's most difficult position) by managers and coaches.
Defensively, he led the American League in fielding percentage (.986), putouts (267), assists (529), total chances (807) and double plays (114). His fielding percentage was among the highest ever achieved by a shortstop (though not as good as his 1990 total, which ranks No. 1 in baseball history). Offensively, he led the major leagues in total bases (368 -- the seventh-best in the last 50 years), extra-base hits (85 -- second best ever by a shortstop) and multi-hit games (73). He set personal-bests with a .323 batting average, 34 home runs and 114 runs batted in. He was among the league leaders in hits (second), slugging percentage (second), doubles (second), homers (third), runs batted in (fourth) and batting average (sixth).
But something more noteworthy and less quantifiable happened Cal Ripken Jr. He went from being regarded as a very good player to recognition as one of the best to have played the game. When Sports Illustrated chose a handful of athletes this month as "living legends," only two baseball players were included, Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken. He is the youngest active player with a virtual lock on entry into baseball's Hall of Fame.
Yet we honor him as Marylander of the Year not just for his baseball feats but for being such a community-minded citizen of his native state. Two years ago, he and his wife, Kelly, donated $250,000 to open the Ripken Learning Center for adult literacy. This year, when his extraordinary on-field success could have allowed him to enrich himself, he spent a weekend (along with fellow baseball stars he coaxed into participating) signing autographs and auctioning memorabilia to raise another $200,000 for the literacy effort.
Players can have great years, and good careers, without making the leap to legendhood. (Roger Maris, for example, is not in the Hall of Fame.) For those few who manage to make the leap, it is even rarer when you can point to one transcendent season and say: This is the year it happened.
It happened in 1991 for Cal Ripken because he added a brilliant season to a career in which he has demonstrated amazing consistency on the field and admirable citizenship off it. His baseball accomplishments place him on lists with the likes of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. He continues, every game and in every way, to earn the right to join such elite company.