Legacy fades as baseball dream story comes to end

June 21, 2001|By Michael Olesker

WE BID farewell to Cal Ripken as the embodiment of the American Dream and the last carrier of a vanishing culture. We watched him round the bases and shake his daddy's hand. We saw him flip the double-play grounder to his brother Bill. We saw him wave to his mom the night he caught the ghost of Lou Gehrig, and kiss his wife and little kids as they sat behind home plate.

Who hasn't drifted to sleep dreaming such dreams? He is the hometown boy who extended the backyard whiffle ball field to the front porch stadium, where each night he heard his own neighbors cheer him on. Who hasn't had a schoolyard catch without picturing such heaven on earth?

But he arrived imagining himself part of a continuing history and lingered long enough to discover he was its last remaining legacy.

The Oriole Way, they called it when Ripken arrived. As a child watching from his father's shadow, he stood in the same clubhouse each spring and saw boys turn into men. They were there, one summer after the next. Their names were Robinson and Palmer and Powell. As a teen-ager, he saw the arrival of Murray and Flanagan and Dempsey and Singleton. All of them stayed and stayed.

Ripken imagined he would continue that tradition and not become its valedictory. His big league arrival coincided with the great changes that swept baseball and eroded what had been the game's most consistent franchise over the previous two decades. It was not just free agency, but the dying Edward Bennett Williams reaching for one last triumph and instead wrecking the foundation that had produced a generation of glory.

For much of Cal Ripken's time, the only glory has been focused on him. As Williams dismantled the team, and the farm system that sustained it, a disgusted Murray asked out. There were no quality athletes coming up behind the fading Singleton and Flanagan. An entire ball club's reputation seemed to rest on one guy's shoulders, whether he wanted it or not.

At the news conference announcing his retirement, Ripken said the '83 World Series was his greatest moment. But it was 18 years ago. In much of Ripken's time, he was the ball club's marquee name. Even in that brief interlude when Davey Johnson guided them to the playoffs, there was something comforting about Ripken on the field, even as his playing skills had begun to slip.

We marveled at Roberto Alomar's magic, and Rafael Palmeiro's sweet swing. Randy Myers performed ninth-inning miracles out of the bullpen, and Bobby Bonilla could hit moonshots. But something was missing at the core, even as we exulted in their victories.

Who were these guys? They seemed merely hired hands, itinerant entertainers hired on for a season or two who, everyone understood, had no particular connection to Baltimore and no emotional ties. They weren't our kids. They weren't Ripken, who grew up in the neighborhood, or Murray or Brooksie, who grew up on the farm and came of age while we watched.

Baseball, of course, is a great spawner of myths. We want to believe the athletes play not only for our team, but our community. We want to believe our love is requited. It's why we've held Cal so close to our hearts: We know his whole history, and his family's - and, in a very real sense, he knows ours.

But baseball wants it both ways. While playing on our sentiments, it must deal with the cruelest of realities. Even the Iron Man is made of bone and blood. And the Orioles, while appreciating Ripken's box office value, have fretted over his declining playing abilities, and the peculiar predicament of removing him from the very pedestal on which they placed him.

They want to begin again. It will never be 1966 again, when they commenced a run of pennants and World Series triumphs with a consistent cast of characters. It will never be 1982 again, when Cal Ripken seemed to be the newest piece of a legacy, instead of the last one.

But they're trying to focus on kids again, to rejuvenate the minor league system, to establish a new team identity with youngsters who will stick around for a while, who will establish not only playing skills but a personal identity. Jerry Hairston seems part of that. Chris Richard seems part of it.

Ripken mentioned them at his news conference. He was gracious and smiling and gave no hint of the things he knows are going on behind his back. As an organization, the Orioles have wanted him to retire for at least the past two years. But they could not push without being seen as bullies.

He is Cal Ripken, who let us share in his American Dream. He is the fellow who caught Lou Gehrig's ghost, who rounded third base and shook his daddy's hand, who flipped the baseball to his brother Bill and blew kisses to his family. He's the neighborhood kid who grew up in front of our eyes.

This does not happen except in dreams. And nobody knows how the ballplayers to follow can possibly tell so sweet a bedtime story.

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