Ripken way: never out of season

While Cal, brother Billy sign books, fans sing praises of former Orioles

Baltimore ... Or Less

April 11, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

They'd started lining up at 4 a.m.: toddlers and grandmas, teachers and salesmen, cops and firefighters and Little Leaguers from Rising Sun and Roanoke, Essex and Aberdeen. Now, almost half a day later, they clutch their tickets, befriend strangers in long lines, and never seem to relinquish the expressions of children on Christmas morning.

They have come on this recent weeknight to the White Marsh Barnes & Noble store to drink deep of the elixir that is the legend of the Ripkens. And by the time Cal Jr. and brother Billy -- co-authors of a new book, Play Baseball the Ripken Way -- stride through the swelling crowd, the ex-Orioles seem less like the featured attractions at a book signing than the answers to a great philosophical question: Why does baseball matter?

The Dixons have an idea. Scott, a Catonsville attorney, and his family of four arrived at 8 a.m. to claim the red passes that would assure them a place in a line in the store's fiction section almost 10 hours later that evening.

Brandon, 9, sports a No. 8 O's jersey -- the same one his father wore to more than 30 games as he watched Cal's Hall of Fame career wind down. In fact, the father and son attended their mutual hero's final home game. "[Cal] taught me never to give up on my dreams," says Brandon, a rec league player who says he's a budding power hitter. "He showed you can do whatever you set your mind to."

"Cal was more than a fine player," says Scott, who doubles as manager and GM of Brandon's team. "He has always been a caring member of the community. He passes his knowledge on to kids. His family life has always been an open book. He's everything about baseball you'd want to share with your family. I see this as an excellent father-son sort of moment."

'Feeling like a little kid'

In line together across the store, Bob Rinker and Bill Nickerson are not father and son, but might as well be.

Rinker, a part-time photographer for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, the minor-league team Cal happens to own, is as proper a fan as he is ardent.

"I'd never ask him for an autograph on the job," says Rinker, the dad of a 12-year-old Little Leaguer who is at practice just now. "There's an etiquette to that, you know? But I mean, Cal Ripken -- I work for the man, and he runs a great business, but here, well, I'm feeling like a little kid myself."

"The reason for this crowd?" says Nickerson, a career firefighter who lives in Baltimore. "Cal is a link to former generations, to the way the game used to be. The top players used to stay with the same franchise their whole career. Now they hopscotch from team to team. Cal has serious roots in this community. That means a lot to people around here."

By 6 o'clock, when the event officially gets under way, 500 free passes are long gone, and fans are stationed in groups of 50 throughout the store. Cal, always more imposing in person than he seems on TV, takes a seat beside Bill at a big wooden table. He reaches into a pile of black Sharpies and gestures to an employee, who ushers the first group past velvet ropes.

"Hey, guys," says Cal to three grade-school boys. He signs eight books, sliding each methodically to the co-author at his right.

Bulbs flash. "One, two, three," says Bill, smiling into the lens of an Instamatic. When a camera doesn't go off, he holds his smile. "Four, five, six!" he says, laughing.

Minor league fan

There's a limit of four books per customer, no memorabilia. Still, one grinning, silver-haired man lugs in a boxful. He wears an Ironbirds T-shirt, so the Ripkens don't seem to mind. Terry Foss has driven up from southern Maryland, where he works for Au Bon Pain restaurants and spends his leisure time going to minor-league games around the state.

"Ironbirds!" cries Cal, brandishing his felt-tip. "Great team! All right."

Foss, still beaming afterward, explains the allure of his "idol."

"I don't bother with the major leagues anymore," he says. "The parks aren't fan-friendly. In the minors, at Frederick or Bowie, you sit near the field. You talk with the players. It's the way baseball should be. Cal shares that kind of spirit, only in the big leagues. How often do you see that nowadays?"

With a signing technique as brisk as a well-turned double play, the Ripkens work their way through one group after another, pausing once in a while to chat, laugh, shake a hand. By 7, Bill is shaking his arm like a dog shedding water. By 7:30, Cal is flipping a dried-out pen in the air. By 8, Linda Friedel of Essex becomes one of about 1,000 fans who will walk off with a rare prize this evening.

After half a century as an Oriole fan, Friedel doesn't seem to think 14 hours was too much time to spend getting an autograph.

"Are you kidding?" she says, laughing. "This is Cal Ripken we're talking about. It's so awesome the way he gives and gives. What can you say about the man? He is Orioles baseball."

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