Schmuck: A life in the spotlight

Orioles fans embraced Ripken from the day he arrived

It must have been terribly frustrating. Cal Ripken Jr. spent his entire Hall of Fame career trying to convey something that was so basic we all just assumed there had to be more to it.

Call it the Ripken Way.

Call it whatever you want.

It was never that complicated.

Cal was never that complicated.

He came.

He practiced.

He played.

Every game for something like 16 years.

When he tried to explain himself -- to defend his famous streak -- it was always the same. It was just a byproduct of his upbringing. It was an obligation to report for work every day, whether you carried a lunch pail or a Louisville Slugger. It was the way Dad taught him and Bill and a lot of other young Orioles to play. He developed his own clich├ęs, but there is a reason some expressions become cliches -- because they are so true there is no need to find new ways to say them.

It had to be frustrating, because each small truth was dissected thousands of times by hundreds of people who had no idea what it was like to be Cal Ripken Jr., but still felt the need to form an opinion.

We live in a cynical world. We questioned his motives as the streak turned into The Streak. We debated whether his seeming obsession with perfect attendance was helping the Orioles or hurting them. We wondered whether the man with the perennial milk mustache was really so perfect after all.

That's the way it is with heroes, but this one was the whole package. He was Brooks with a Maryland birth certificate, a player so available -- so connected -- that virtually every Orioles fan in the region has some kind of first-hand Cal memory.

Tens of thousands of them will make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., this week to show their public affection one more time and to feel the love in return.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that is certainly true in this case, because it has been a long time since anyone asked if Ripken was too good to be true.

The answer came not on that September night when he took his famous victory lap around Camden Yards -- though that would have been answer enough -- but in the days and months leading up to it, when he lifted the weight of a broken baseball world onto his shoulders and carried it back to its rightful place in American society.

Somebody had to step forward after Major League Baseball nearly self-destructed in 1994. Somebody had to reach out to a generation of alienated fans still smarting from the first World Series cancellation in nearly a century. Somebody had to convince us that baseball still mattered.

Ripken was the obvious choice for all the obvious reasons, but the reason he succeeded had less to do with his squeaky-clean image and his pursuit of Lou Gehrig than it did with his characteristically basic approach to the problem.

He reached out to the fans one at a time.


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