The bleachers were mostly empty that night in 1984.
Baseball held little interest for me as a four-year-old. I mostly remember being amazed by the various sights and sounds available from the cheapest seats at Memorial Stadium. The only thing from the actual game that caught my interest was the "giant television," and the things that my father and brothers told me about the game and players. I don't remember much, but I remember someone telling me about Cal Ripken Jr., and how he was really good.
The next year, my family moved. My father, a Vietnam War veteran, had recently retired after 26 years in the Air Force and had accepted a new assignment as a civil servant in Germany. From 1985 to 1993, my appreciation of baseball, the Orioles and Cal grew without actual first-hand experiences. I played Little League, collected baseball cards and proudly announced to all my teammates that the Orioles were my favorite team and Cal was their champion. Eventually I grew old enough to enjoy box scores and standings. I followed Cal and the Orioles everyday.
In 1993, my family returned to Maryland, and finally my love of baseball, the Orioles and Cal fully blossomed. I became a living encyclopedia of Cal's accomplishments.
"Did you know Cal won the Rookie of the Year award and then followed it with the AL MVP award? Did you know Cal holds the record for most home runs by a shortstop? Did you know Cal has been in the All-Star Game every year since 1983?"
In 1998, I was diagnosed with cancer, and many of the nights spent in hospital beds while my veins were being injected with chemotherapy were filled with Orioles broadcasts and small prayers on my part that Cal would get a hit. In 2001, three years into remission, I was at Camden Yards for my 21st birthday, watching Cal hit a hot screamer to right field.
In an age when many athletes were deemphasizing their positions as role models, Cal stood apart. Cal displayed dedication, humility and hard work.
The many changes in his stance showed that sometimes you have to change direction to meet your goals. His strong defensive work was a case study in careful planning and preparation. His string of seasons with at least 20 home runs and 90 RBIs demonstrated his consistency. The Streak was a constant reminder of work ethic. Most importantly, the way Cal conducted himself throughout his career set him apart. He never lost his nerve, never hung his head and never lost composure.
Cal could have played a few more years. But Cal, wracked by injuries, had one last lesson to teach those of us fortunate to grow up with him as one of our role models -- knowing when to depart with grace and dignity and how to let go of something that has passed us by.
It didn't take long for Cal to fade from the forefront of my memory. I was 21 and in college when he retired, the Orioles long since past their last successful season. It wasn't until this year that I really remembered what Cal means to me. My father, the other great role model in my life, was now retired after 46 years of service to the government and battling cancer himself. He received a letter from Cal. A friend of my father's had met Cal at a book signing and told him about my father. In the letter, Cal detailed his gratitude toward my father for his dedication to our country and offered words of encouragement about my father's struggle with cancer. It touched my father enough to write Cal in return, and to let him know that his son, now a civil servant in the Middle East, was the real Ripken fan in the family. A few weeks later I received a letter from Cal myself.
After 18 months in the Persian Gulf, I plan to return to Maryland soon. Hopefully my return will be in time for me to make a trip to Cooperstown.
Baltimoresun.com is looking for Orioles fans to write about their favorite Cal Ripken Jr. memories. Entries can be personal anecdotes, memories of Ripken's top performances or thoughts on what he meant to the Orioles and baseball. Fan articles will be published leading up to Ripken's Hall of Fame induction. Please limit submissions to 700 words maximum. E-mail your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name and phone number for verification purposes.