Tops banquet without Ripken is like a team without a pitcher

January 07, 1996|By John Steadman

Disappointment and dismay. A bothersome circumstance. One of the Baltimore Orioles' most illustrious players ever, Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr., coming off an epic achievement, will be absent from the city's major baseball banquet of the year.

He was invited but is not going to attend, unless there's an unexpected change in plans. He'll be missed more than he knows. Even the Orioles' owner, Peter Angelos, attempted to influence an appearance but couldn't alter the decision.

Ripken, in total fairness, never once said he would be there, but Frank Sliwka, who has been chairman of the Tops in Sports banquet for 33 of its 43 years, remained optimistic. Admittedly, it's difficult to believe a baseball gala could be held in Baltimore, particularly this year, without Cal Ripken being in the lineup.

Ripken's advisers, Ron Shapiro and Ira Rainess, notified Sliwka in December that he would not be available. Still, Sliwka believed they'd realize it was appropriate for Ripken, after moving past Lou Gehrig in the record book, to show up for an event that is important to Baltimore, plus the fact it's sponsored for charity by an association of former professional baseball players that has his father, Cal Sr., as a member.

Reiterating, Ripken, Shapiro and Rainess at no time told Sliwka he would see him Friday night at the Towson Center for what has been a premier off-season baseball function extending over four decades. The most famous name in the history of the modern Orioles franchise decided he'd decline this time around because of the pressure of dealing with personal appearances. It was presumed -- but only that -- by those buying tickets ($50 per plate for the benefit of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatric Oncology Center) that Ripken would be at the head table, as he has so many times in the past. However, that was never promised, nor has Sliwka posted such a billing.

It's upsetting that a player who's never missed a game is going to miss the annual Baltimore baseball banquet. On Friday, Sliwka asked Angelos, a friend of long standing, to intercede.

The result was the same. "Peter told me, after talking with Shapiro, that they were still adamant. He mentioned to me that Shapiro said Cal was there last year and had been to nine of our last 13 banquets, which is true," Sliwka said.

What comes as a further annoyance to Sliwka, co-chairman John Rommel and Ron Rizzi, president of the sponsoring Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association, is that on Jan. 21, nine days later, Ripken will appear at the New York Baseball Writers' Association dinner.

Says Sliwka: "After all, as an Oriole, he broke what was thought to be an untouchable record, was signed by the Orioles out of Aberdeen High School, has been an Oriole his whole career and lives only 15 minutes from Towson.

"If he came to our event, we are flexible enough to accommodate him in whatever way he'd be comfortable. We'd present the award early in the program and then excuse him from the proceedings if that's what he wanted us to do."

Ripken's first important award, called the "Star of the Future," was presented to him in 1981 at this same Baltimore function and was accepted by Cal Sr., since the then promising but unestablished shortstop was playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He received other presentations from the group following his two Most Valuable Player years, and last winter was the recipient of the Jack Dunn Trophy for service to the community.

Ripken has been a model contributor to so many important endeavors in the Baltimore community that it's difficult to criticize him for passing up the gathering. We still believe he'll find a way to be there, but it's his call.

It used to be that professional teams could demand, as part of the contract agreement with the players, that they attend certain off-the-field events that had promotional value for baseball. This would certainly qualify.

Meanwhile, Sliwka has a full head table, with Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench; Rafael Palmeiro; Harold Baines; Dennis Martinez; Jeff Nelson; B. J. Surhoff; Ken Cloude, this year's Maryland Star of the Future; Scott McClain and Rocky Coppinger, leading prospects in the Orioles' farm system; Andy Bair, proclaimed as last year's outstanding high school player; John Hart; Syd Thrift; Pat Gillick; and Angelos, who says he wouldn't miss being there.

Albert Belle, winner of the Babe Ruth Crown, wanted to send his brother to pick it up, but that's not acceptable without a reasonable excuse. So Sliwka said he may donate the crown to Johns Hopkins Hospital for auction, with all money going to the children's oncology department.

Back to the Ripken situation and a letter Rainess wrote to Sliwka on Dec. 6: "I am writing to follow up your conversation with Ron Shapiro the other day. As Ron told you, although Cal appreciates the good works of the Tops in Sports Banquet, he will not be able to join you this year.

"I wanted to confirm this with you in an effort to spare you the possible inconvenience of removing Cal's name from any advertisement or other correspondence which may be drafted relative to the upcoming banquet.

"Cal is happy to have participated in the past and wishes you and everyone at the MPBPA [Maryland Professional Baseball Players' Association] great success in 1996."

Oddly enough, the cover of the program is devoted to Ripken, without any remote mention of him being there, under the heading of "A Great Moment In Baseball" -- marking the 2,131st consecutive game he played last season.

Unfortunately for the banquet crowd, the man who contributed so much to baseball won't be present, and that's a regret that'll be shared by all.

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