Cal's feat defines path that parent hope kids will follow

September 12, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

I know we are not supposed to hold sports figures up as role models for our children because, though they may have a perfect jump shot, they also have money, women, cars, jewelry and feet of clay.

But I have to say, Cal Ripken's streak of consecutive games played has provided me with more child-rearing leverage than all the threats and bribes in Christendom.

"Cal Ripken didn't dump the last of his milk down the sink, and he's got a $500,000 endorsement contract today because of it."

"Cal Ripken has a Gold Glove, and you can bet he still wears his cup during games. And I'm sure it feels stupid to him, too."

"It's a good thing Cal Ripken didn't get any birthday invitations during the last 2,000 games, or there wouldn't have been any parades for him."

The Streak has received attention beyond Baltimore and beyond all reason. Even a child who collects Magic Cards instead of baseball cards cannot help but know that the Orioles shortstop hasn't taken a day off work since before they were born.

When my 9-year-old daughter, whose sports hero is "Baywatch" Barbie, asked her father why he didn't dye his hair so she could have a young-looking dad, he replied: "Cal Ripken doesn't dye his hair." And she understood.

"Cal Ripken doesn't ask his mother to bring him a soda in the dugout."

"I'm sure Cal Ripken can remember where he put his cleats. After all, his mother didn't wear his, either."

"If Cal Ripken used that tone of voice, he'd have been stuck in his room the last 14 years instead of out playing baseball with his friends.

Charles Barkley, NBA bad boy and superstar, declared a couple of years ago that he didn't want to be a role model for children. (I speak for all mothers when I say, "No problem, Charles.")

"I am not a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court. It is not my job to raise your kids," Barkley said.

His friend and fellow basketball great Karl Malone responded that this is not an athlete's decision to make. We do not choose to be role models; we are chosen, he said. Our only choice is whether to be good role models or bad ones.

I agree with Barkley that it is unfair of parents to expect athletes to set young people on a path to righteousness. And it is not just because no one can bear up under such incredible scrutiny. Cal Ripken has. In the millions of words written about him this summer, the worst that can be said about him is that he doesn't get much done around the house.

No, the reason athletes cannot be expected to transform young people by their example is that they are too special. They are gifted, truly gifted.

The skills that have taken them to such heights in sports are

gifts, and the only credit they can claim is for not wasting them. A child without the right family tree cannot hope to follow in his hero's footsteps. It is sad to watch a child realize that he is not tall, not strong, not fast.

Ripken has such physical gifts. He has displayed them every summer for 14 years. But he has something else, something our kids can have for themselves regardless of their vertical jump or their time in the 40-yard dash or the speed of their fastball.

Among the qualities and character traits we would wish for our children, a strong work ethic is right up there with not hitting your sister and keeping all four legs of the chair on the floor during dinner. And that has been Cal Ripken's gift to us parents. And to our children.

Ripken shows up.

True, he is showing up to play baseball. He is not sitting through algebra or manning a toll booth on the Bay Bridge. And he is rewarded with millions of dollars and the adoration of fans. I'm not sure he would have such sustained joy if he were doing something else.

But my guess is, he would still show up.

Our children can blame us if they don't have the gene pool for professional sports. And I am certain mine will. But Ripken's streak has less to do with his body than his mind and his heart. The guy shows up every day and does his job, and there is nothing genetic about that.

Cal Ripken's professional life has been magical, and I cannot help but wish that for my children as well. But Cal Ripken has taught me a lesson, too. All I should want, or expect, of my children is that they show up. And do their jobs with his combination of earnestness and humility.

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