The Demigod as Family Man

September 09, 1995|By ANDREW RATNER

There were reasons aplenty, even before last week, to want to be Cal Ripken. Getting to play in the big leagues at the red-brick shrine at Camden Yards. Making six million bucks. Getting to wear those great, flip-up sunglasses at shortstop.

But in recent days, on the world's stage, he added one more irresistible allure to that list.

Not immortality.

Normality.

It flowed in the admiration he so outwardly feels for his parents. In the devotion he exudes for his wife and two children. (''[Kelly], Rachel and Ryan are my life,'' he told the masses after he had ended a 13-year odyssey by breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record Wednesday night.) The indebtedness he harbors for mentors who helped him develop. The appreciation he demonstrates for fans.

Poor Peter Angelos, the Orioles' owner. His speech after the record-breaking game was no more stilted and overstuffed than most of those given by team owners in locker-room celebrations, only his seemed that much more so beside his more-wholesome-than-milk superstar.

If Ripken is a ''Nineties guy,'' it must be the 1890s. His makeup doesn't resemble that of many of his peers blessed with the talent and luck to make a fortune in the entertainment industry, the Darryl Strawberrys and Steve Howes and Dennis Rodmans, the Charlie Sheens and Michael Jacksons. It's disheartening that even the seeming ''good guys'' among pop celebrities -- Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, Kevin Costner -- see their households crumble.

The media's fixation with Cal Ripken was partly due to a perverse, reverse fascination with the guy: How can he be this good? The press dogged the man for months and the worst it could turn up was that as a teen-ager, he used to filch quarters with his buddies from a malfunctioning toll booth near his native Aberdeen.

Here's a player who signs autographs for hours after a game, who reportedly turns into a human jungle gym for children attending family parties at his home.

We've become accustomed to celebrities, even our idols, letting us down. We hear of the accusations against an O.J. Simpson, a Hugh Grant, and wonder how can anyone screw up such gilded lives? Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig in the 1942 film, ''Pride of the Yankees.'' But Cal's ''Streak Week'' reactions more evoked Jimmy Stewart at the end of ''It's a Wonderful Life.'' Only he didn't need an archangel perched atop the JumboTron scoreboard to convince him of the enormous power of family and friends.

Some of the images that will endure in semi-frozen memory from last week will bear testament to that:

Ripken removing his white, orange and black jersey to reveal a T-shirt, not bearing the logo of some new corporate sponsor to whom he's beholden, but with a puckish message about ''2,130+ hugs and kisses'' from his kids.

Ripken taking a victory lap to high-five the adoring fans, who have long forgotten decrying ''the streak'' years ago when he was slumping.

Ripken paying tribute in a speech to former teammate Eddie Murray, now with the Cleveland team, and nodding with a sly smile as an appreciative roar swelled up from the stands. It was as if Ripken had turned country lawyer and coaxed a communal mea culpa from the fans, that they had perhaps harshly and unfairly run Murray out of town.

And Ripken's spoken and body language expressions of gratitude to his parents: Vi and Cal Sr., the former Orioles coach and manager who some fans also think got a raw deal upon his firing years ago. Like the 35-year-old Orioles' star, a lot of people at that point in their lives begin to more fully comprehend how much their own parents shaped them, intentionally and otherwise.

For myself, the most connecting moment came off the field: The Ripken alarm clock failed to go off on time, and after not getting to bed until 3 a.m. following Tuesday's record-tying game, husband and wife had to scramble to get their daughter off to her first day of kindergarten. Who couldn't identify with that?

None of this is meant to imply that Ripken is an everyman -- unless every man has a mansion, now complete with a one-ton rock on the lawn inscribed ''2,131.''

But the world's most famous Marylander dramatically demonstrated that being one in a million means being exceptional, not odd. No one could expect that his profound and newfound notoriety will tarnish this ironman.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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