Big Shoes to Fill Following in the footsteps of a legend, whether JFK, Johnny Carson, Helen Gurley Brown or Cal Ripken, is no walk in the park. To win, you must simply be yourself.

April 03, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Yesterday at Camden Yards, someone not Jon Miller announced that, playing at shortstop, was someone not Cal Ripken.

Whoa. What alternate universe have we stumbled onto here?

Even legends, it seems, move on.

"Hey, where's he going?" fan Scott Baker joked yesterday as the team ran onto the field for the first inning and Ripken veered sharply away from the pack to head to his new position at third base. "That doesn't look right, does it?"

It was like that "missing man" formation that fighter pilots do in honor of a lost colleague, one jet arcing away from the rest and going on his lonely way.

At least Ripken was just steps away from his usual spot at shortstop. Jon Miller was completely out of earshot -- in San Francisco.

But both changes meant the same thing: Someone, somehow, had to replace the irreplaceable.

Neither broadcaster Jim Hunter nor shortstop Mike Bordick fell on their faces. Oh, Bordick made a throwing error. And Hunter understandably thought one very long fly ball was outta the park, though an outfielder caught it. But the day ended, and both men still had jobs.

"I'm just relieved that the day is here," Hunter said of his first game as the Orioles' new voice. "There was such a build-up, and then the [original Opening Day] game wasn't played so we had to wait another day. I was very anxious, about doing the on-field ceremonies, and then the game itself. Now I can take a big breath."

Bordick said he gets nervous about every game, and this one was no different. But, no, that wasn't the reason for the error or lack of hits.

"Once I cross the white lines, my focus goes to the game," he said.

Besides, he added, he wasn't out there alone: "Cal was right there beside me."

As long as there have been legendary figures, there have been those called in to replace them. Some rose to the occasion; others were destined to become footnotes or, at best, answers to trivia questions. ("Alex, I'll take 'Rock 'n' roll drummers' for $500." "Kenny Jones." "Who replaced Keith Moon on the Who?")

There are even those who go on to surpass their predecessors. It's a scenario that has inspired the classic catfight movie, "All About Eve," in which an understudy connives to usurp the star, and a Broadway show, "42nd Street," a sunnier variant of the chorus girl who gets a break and becomes an overnight sensation.

In a case of life imitating art, Shirley MacLaine's career was launched the night she was plucked from the chorus line to sub for the then-more-famous Carol Haney in "The Pajama Game" on Broadway; soon, she was en route to Hollywood. Sean Connery was the second James Bond but has made most people forget the first (and also, some would say, the third, fourth and fifth).

But then, neither MacLaine nor Connery were following legends.

No escaping comparisons

Those who did sometimes never escaped the shadow of their predecessors. LBJ was many things, but some never forgave him for the one thing he wasn't -- JFK. The Kennedy legend, of course, is one of America's most mythic, and today's politicians latch on to it at their own risk, as Dan Quayle discovered when comparing his congressional experience to JFK's during the 1988 vice-presidential debate. Lloyd Bentsen's put-down was exquisitely paced: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Like politicians, entertainers and athletes can find it hard to escape comparisons to their predecessors -- they're in the spotlight, and it's all too easy to contrast then and now. Van Halen was never the same after Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth. Doug DeCinces and Marty Domres were both fine athletes, but the luck of their draws was to take over for Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas.

It's no wonder any sane person steps into his predecessor's big shoes with a certain reluctance. When Babe Dahlgren was sent in to replace Lou Gehrig, thus ending Iron Man's 2,130 consecutive game streak, he played with a lump in his throat "the size of an apple," he reminisced several years ago with The Sun's John Steadman. Every half-inning, he begged the benched Gehrig, "Come on, Lou, go out there and give it a try." Dahlgren, who died last September, had a terrific game and a decent career, and yet he is remembered by most for whom he replaced rather than who he was.

Still, those who have stepped into big shoes occasionally do succeed -- not at supplanting the legends, but at making a name for themselves, on their own terms. Dan Rather faced intense scrutiny when he replaced Walter Cronkite, but now he's largely judged on his own merits. Jay Leno may have his critics, but

they don't necessarily involve comparisons to Johnny Carson. And then there is our own buttoned-down mayor Kurt L. Schmoke: He used to suffer in some comparisons to the flamboyant William Donald Schaefer -- is Mayor Aloof an improvement over Mayor Annoyed? -- but by now, three terms into office, he has found his own ways to disappoint.

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