Cal Ripken Jr.: He is a real baseball hero

September 22, 1998|By Neil A. Grauer

I have been fortunate enough to witness some spectacular events in modern sports history.

I saw Mickey Mantle hit a home run in Yankee Stadium in 1961, the year that he and Roger Maris were battling to beat Babe Ruth's 60-homers-in-a-season record. I saw Secretariat win the 1973 Preakness from an incomparable vantage point in the Pimlico Club House. And every time I went to an Orioles game since 1982, I got to see Cal Ripken play.

Just as an aging, dwindling group of baseball fans still can boast that they once saw Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, untold millions of spectators today will be able to tell their children and grandchildren: "I saw Cal Ripken." Even The Washington Post, hardly a booster of Baltimore, once called Ripken "the most beloved figure in baseball." He may have spent his entire career with the Orioles, but he really belongs to everyone who ever went to a ballpark -- anywhere.

Even a casual follower of the game could see that this compulsively analytical; plain-spoken; dryly humorous and "profoundly regular guy" (as Ripken characterized himself in his autobiography, "The Only Way I Know") was bringing incalculable honor to this city and the Orioles every time he stepped on the field. Particularly following the horrendous 1994 baseball strike, Ripken's dedication to his sport -- and to its fans -- provided much-needed polishing to the image of the game nationwide, while also supplying always-welcome luster to Baltimore and the Birds.

During all of the 1995 hoopla over the Streak, Ripken believed that the press and public really wanted to "celebrate baseball" after the strike, more than they wanted to canonize him. He wrote that the Streak "in a very tangible way tied modern baseball to old-time baseball," as well as to others who just did their jobs day in and day out.

It baffled me to hear Ripken sometimes accused of being an pTC insufficiently demonstrative team leader. Lockeroom pranks and banter aside, it seemed to me that he led by simple example -- by his intense preparation (he still has the index cards he kept on every pitcher he faced in the minor leagues); by his consistency and determination.

It seems silly to require him to yell boola-boola from the sidelines. I also never understood the supposed logic of those baseball savants who kept insisting that if Ripken just would sit down for a game or two or three, that somehow would improve his !B astonishing performances on the field or his steady reliability in the batter's box (periodic slumps notwithstanding). I suspect he will be just as astonishing and steady in the future as he was when the Streak was intact.

In his autobiography, Mr. Ripken readily acknowledged that he has been "unbelievably lucky." He got good breaks -- including "other guys' bad breaks -- injuries -- that opened up opportunities for me," he wrote. He relished the ad lib of an actor in a Fox Sports advertisement who scoffed at him as "Mister I've-Been-Kissed-By-The-Baseball-Fairy."

He has shared that luck with all of us. And the good news is, he will continue to do so next season. The Streak may be over, but Ripken's career isn't yet -- and all the fans who go to Camden Yards next spring and summer, or to ballparks across the country and in Canada, still will have an opportunity to experience something they can boast about in their dotage: "I saw Cal Ripken."

Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer, is author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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