Losing a legend, and loosening our roots

October 07, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IT IS NOT Cal Ripken fading from our eyes this weekend, but an era.

The indomitable Oriole takes his last curtain call 20 years after first pulling on a major league uniform, 15 years after working the double-play pivot with his brother Bill - and more than 40 years after their dad joined the organization and made baseball his life's work.

In that time, we have been through moon shots and wars, assassinations and political convulsions, and once-unimaginable terror from the sky. Empires have crumbled, and umpires, too. And, always, there were Ripkens on the ball field, reminding us of youth, of spring, of eternal ties between this community and this team.

In the winter of 1954, when the wondrous news arrived that the Baltimore Orioles were returning to major league baseball after a dreary absence, the poet Ogden Nash celebrated the moment with these lines:

Wee Willie Keeler

Runs through the town

All along Charles Street,

In his nightgown,

Belling like a hound dog,

Gathering the pack:

Hey, Wilbert Robinson,

The Orioles are back!

Hey, Hughie Jennings!

Hey, John McGraw!

I got fire in my eye

And tobacco in my jaw!

Hughie, hold my halo.

I'm sick of being a saint:

Got to teach youngsters

To hit 'em where they ain't.

There was, between the time of Nash's lines and his original inspiration, half a century of major-league void in Baltimore. But baseball's eternal folklore was so strong that no one needed a refresher on names once shouted from the grandstand, of McGraw's smarts, Jennings' toughness, Keeler's hitting skills that transcended all rules of grammar. We hold onto our identities.

"Hit 'em where they ain't," indeed.

What's remarkable is that the same time span is comparable to the Ripkens'. The long absence of Orioles from Wee Willie's turn-of-the-century time to the modern era was only a few years longer than the period bookended by Cal Senior's days as a struggling catcher in the Orioles' minor league system to Junior's retirement from the majors.

That's a legacy, folks; that's not just an era, it's a lot of people's life spans.

But the era that's ending isn't just Cal's. It's the notion that sports fans used to have, which is now fading with his withdrawal. In the coming years, who will stick around long enough to build an identity? In the time of free agents, and the lure of extra dollars pulling athletes to ever-newer markets, who will put down roots long enough to build even a semblance of those connections that the Ripkens made?

They stuck around.

In the archives in our heads, we'll remember Junior diving behind the bag at third, or whirling at short to stop a grounder previously destined for center field. Or we'll remember him tagging one deep to left, and greeting his dad as he headed home.

We watched him arrive as a 20-year-old with unbounded energy, and we also saw him take on the trappings of age: not only a wife and children, not only the receding hairline, but the slow erosion of abilities once taken for granted. And these, too, tied him to us - because, in him, we realized the movement of our own lives.

When I was a kid, playing sandlot ball in the early days of the modern Oriole era, the old-timers would watch somebody hustle to smother a grounder, or hang tough with a runner bearing down, and invariably remark: "He plays like an old Oriole."

An old Oriole: somebody from Wee Willie and McGraw's time, a reminder of a legacy, of shared community toughness. Standards were imparted.

My children came of age watching Murray and Flanny, and Singy and The Demper. No first names are needed; they were there spring after spring, as was Ripken. They bequeathed a legacy of excellence, and of connections: They weren't just passing through.

Some years back, the writer Roy Blount Jr. was lamenting the passing of images. Joe DiMaggio, he wrote, had ceased being remembered as a great athlete and was now seen as a commercial pitchman for coffee makers and savings banks.

"Somehow," Blount wrote, "DiMaggio the great ballplayer ought to be reclaimed. There should be videocassettes of him running down fly balls. You could put one on when you're in a certain mood, the way you put on a Billie Holiday record."

DiMaggio was baseball's last pre-television hero, but at least there are movies. With Wee Willie Keeler, the pictures are strictly in our heads. Cal Ripken's exploits have been photographed, and disseminated in so many ways, that we know the images as well as we know our own in the mirror.

It's the modern way. Today's sports are covered so thoroughly, and so endlessly repeated, that there's barely room for memory. Sports thus diminishes its own past. And maybe that's the idea: If they bombard us enough, maybe we won't realize there's no texture behind the pictures.

Cal Ripken's career gave us texture, gave us depth, gave us a connection. In the modern era, the real danger isn't just ballplayers who become free agents. It's free-agent fans.

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