Cal ties us to a time, back before Gehrig, when all was right

September 08, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

Somehow, it was bigger than ever we knew. Cal was sweeter than we knew. The fans were louder than we knew.

And I think I know why.

It wasn't the record, exactly. Of course, the record is phenomenal. It's almost as phenomenal as that big rock his teammates gave him.

But the record -- and certainly the rock -- meant less than the moment. We wanted a moment like that. More precisely, we needed a moment like that. And so we cheered until we were hoarse and cried until we literally ran dry and booed anyone -- meaning Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who seemed to think the moment was about him -- who tried to get in our way.

We were celebrating the streak, the record and Cal. Mostly, Cal.

Here's my theory: All we ask, in life, is a reason to believe.

And along comes this blue-eyed, 6-foot-4 hunk of down-home-Baltimore Americana who, on the day he becomes an official immortal, takes a side trip from Olympus to deliver his 5-year-old daughter to her first day of school. Tell me you didn't get a rock-size lump in your throat.

That's who we want to believe in.

They use words like "throwback" to describe Cal. You know, they didn't invent that word in the '90s. When I grew up -- in that long-ago time before cable, but not before bad manners -- they used the word, too. I think it might have even been used before then.

We've always believed there was some mythical era when everything was better, especially people.

Cal seems to fit the role.

He's a decent person. He's not a great person. He wouldn't tell you he was great, either. In fact, he was genuinely awed by what he had accomplished and humbled by the reaction. This was not an act, and everyone knew it.

In these times, it seems, decency is a pretty high standard. It's decency that makes Colin Powell so attractive. We want someone we think -- we hope -- is capable of doing the right thing.

Of course, Cal didn't let us down. He is a guarded man, jealous of his privacy, careful never to reveal too much about himself. But for these last few days, he embraced us as much as we embraced him. He enjoyed the moment as much as we hoped he would. You saw it in the smile that wouldn't go down.

My favorite moment, by the way, wasn't the spontaneous lap around Camden Yards, although that was plenty cool. Mine's a little more obscure, but the smile played the starring role.

This was a night, remember, when clearly nothing can go wrong for Cal or the Orioles. Cal's teammates routinely perform the phenomenal. Cal, of course, hits another home run. And then he comes up with the bases loaded, and everyone is thinking, including Cal, grand slam. I turn to my wife and say, "There is such a thing as too much."

Cal hits a little flare, and then smiles. This is not a man who smiles when he makes an out with the bases loaded. This is a man who is deadly serious about playing a child's game. But he smiles this time, because, he knows, too, that there is such a thing as too much.

Not everyone understood about proportion. In the post-game ceremony, when the fans wanted only to connect with Ripken, Peter Angelos gave a speech slightly longer than the O.J. trial. When the fans booed, wanting to hear Cal talk, Angelos bored on. It was filibuster more than a speech. He introduced his rich friends. He gave Cal expensive presents for which Cal had no use. He patted himself on the back for giving away money to charity when all the gifts, to a man with a $30 million contract, should have been to charity.

By the time Angelos finished, we were barely even in the mood to hear from the sainted Joe DiMaggio, who stood as a link between Gehrig and Ripken and a symbol of what was and what can be.

Finally, Cal spoke. He didn't say anything memorable. He just said all the right things. And if you wanted to fall in love with him all over again, he didn't stand in your way.

The victory lap, now that was memorable. The home run was memorable. Brady Anderson's speech was memorable. The 22-minute ovation was beyond memorable.

It was all about connection. And about how, that whatever has gone wrong in our town for the last 14 years, Cal Ripken has been dependably right.

And in his greatest moment, he didn't disappoint. Who ever thought he would?

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