The Ripken way

January 10, 2007

Every baseball fan knew this day would come, and yet yesterday's announcement that Cal Ripken Jr. has been chosen for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame packed an emotional wallop, particularly for this city. The two-time Most Valuable Player deserved the overwhelming first-ballot acceptance he received; his streak of 2,632 consecutive games played will likely never be broken, and his solid career numbers, 431 homers and 3,184 hits, could justify his entry alone, especially when compared with other shortstops.

But what makes Mr. Ripken's milestone particularly dramatic is that he - and, to a remarkable extent, his enthusiastic Cooperstown classmate, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres - represent so much of what professional sports has lost of late. He spent his entire career with one team despite the lure of free-agent riches, and approached the sport in an honest, blue-collar manner, worked hard, paid attention to the details, and never embarrassed himself or his team on or off the field.

When the 19-time All-Star sparkled on the diamond, fans knew they were witnessing the fruits of many thousands of practices, of a singular devotion to the game he loved, and a strong-willed father's belief in the "Oriole way." No one has ever for a moment contended it was the work of any performance-enhancing drug.

The steroid scandal has devastated baseball, but then so have escalating player salaries, flawed economics that unfairly favor big-market teams, and irresponsible athletes. Baseball writers seem to understand this even if club owners do not: They gave Mark McGwire just 23 percent of the vote, a stunning (and entirely justified) dissing of a player who broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

Baltimore is deeply proud of Cal, not just because of his achievements on the field but also because of his integrity off it. Perhaps someone who grew up watching his exploits at Camden Yards will someday follow in his footsteps. But as of today, there is only one Cal Ripken Jr., the player they say saved baseball a decade ago, the young man from Aberdeen who is now headed for Cooperstown.

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