It's stuff of fiction, but it's fact

John Eisenberg

Let's call it what it is: a pure sports fantasy.

His wildest dreams come true. Those of his hometown, too.

We've grown so accustomed to Cal Ripken Jr.'s story around here that we've lost perspective on it, lost the ability to see its childlike, almost fictional qualities. His election to the Hall of Fame, announced yesterday, is the high point of a script Hollywood would turn down as too sappy.

A kid roots for his hometown ball team, which his dad works for and in some ways embodies. The kid grows up, gets drafted by the team and makes it to the major leagues. He wins the World Series. He plays for his dad. He plays with his brother. He never leaves town. He doesn't miss a game for years. He makes sports history.

He retires. He makes the Hall of Fame.

Never leaves home.

I mean, come on. It's a Norman Rockwell painting, a John R. Tunis novel, as wholesome as the (come on!) milk he endorses.

You couldn't make it up. But it really happened.

Any one of those elements would give a career a magical quality. Getting to play for Dad's team. Never leaving your hometown.

Rolling it all into one man's career is almost too much, too perfect.

But not an ounce of it is fiction.

"It was the fantasy when I was a boy," Ripken recalled yesterday. "Play baseball and make the Hall of Fame."

As a Baltimore Oriole.

Are we sure some novelist didn't make all this up?

The city where Ripken lived and played is a sports town like many others, passionate about its teams, enamored of its homegrown athletes, the players it can call its own. But as you probably know, Baltimore takes that ardor for homegrowns to a higher level, a fervor few cities can match.

Baltimore's idea of sports perfection is to have the Orioles win the World Series with a first baseman who went to Calvert Hall, a pitcher from Harford County, a shortstop from the city - a whole team of players raised in the 410 and 301 area codes.

It can't happen, of course; today's sports world is far too complex for such myopia. But Ripken's story offers an inkling of what it would feel like. It is a slice of the ideal. The hometown Hall of Famer.

We can argue all night about the city's ultimate sports star. Some would say Ripken, others would anoint Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson. There's no right answer.

But this much we do know: Ripken is the only one who was actually born and raised here. And being from here, that history matters to him.

"Looking back, I'm really happy and thankful I was able to stay with one team, especially the team that I wanted to play for," he said in a recent roundtable interview with several Sun reporters. "Wearing the Oriole uniform around the country and trying to represent the city of Baltimore in a way I felt was honorable and proud, you bring tribute to the team in the way you play the game and the way you conduct yourself on the field and off. It is a great tribute to your team and the city of Baltimore. I took special pride in that."

We'll probably never see another career like it. Every Hall of Famer's story includes an element of fantasy, but with the way pro athletes jump from team to team today, few really care about the uniform they're wearing or the city they're representing. The Yankees' Derek Jeter comes to mind. There aren't many others. Most players' loyalties are for sale.

That can't be said of the two players whose elections were announced yesterday, Ripken and Tony Gwynn - a San Diego State graduate who played his whole career for the Padres and still lives in San Diego. They're dinosaurs, embodying a sports world that barely exists anymore. It's fitting they'll go into the Hall together next summer.

Ripken long ago became an iconic national figure, of course, one of Baltimore's trademark exports. He is so popular across the country that there was speculation he might be the first player to be voted into the Hall of Fame unanimously by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. It turned out only 98.5 percent of the voters put him on their ballots. That's sufficient validation of his place in history. No position player has ever received a higher percentage.

It's all in keeping with the story that never stops soaring, the fantasy that just keeps finding another pinnacle.

"This is all very dreamlike," he said recently of the prospect of seeing himself on the wall in Cooperstown.

But this is no dream. This is a real-life Baltimore sports fable, the purest ever told.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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