More than five years have passed, and the face of the organization still hasn't changed. Not for a single day. It was there again yesterday for the home opener, in fact. We saw him lob a soft toss to Miguel Tejada - the ceremonial first pitch. And just as they always had before, the fans went crazy.
Cal Ripken Jr. hasn't played a game since his retirement in 2001, but he's still the most important player connected to the Orioles. I'm not sure if that's good or bad or even surprising. But it certainly is telling.
There are some talented players on the roster this year. Fans should be excited about Tejada, Erik Bedard, Chris Ray and Nick Markakis. But on the front of the team's media guide, we see a giant No. 8 with a photo of Ripken turning a double play superimposed on top. Ripken has also got the back cover, a full-page picture of the 19-time All-Star in uniform, photographed from behind. And 11 pages inside are dedicated to him.
Honoring an important player the year he enters the Hall of Fame isn't unprecedented - Eddie Murray was on the cover of the Orioles' media guide in 2003 - and it isn't wrong. But it is another small reminder that as long as this team is mired in mediocrity, the organization is forced to cling to its most recent successes, which are starting to test our collective memory.
Ripken is careful when he talks about the current team. The Orioles were good to him for a long time, and now - with the countdown to Cooperstown set at 110 days - Ripken has become the best possible pitchman for the Orioles, a franchise in dire need of something to brag about.
"The Orioles have a rich history, and it's great to remind fans of that history in some ways," he said yesterday. "I was very lucky to have played when we won the World Series, and there were some pretty cool things that happened during my career. But I don't see myself as the face, just a part of the rich history."
Nationally, the Orioles have become the butt of jokes and recipients of endless criticism, but Ripken should provide some relief from that this season. Leading up to his induction July 29, he's going to pile up the frequent-flyer miles. And even though he's more businessman than ballplayer these days, he represents this team more than manager Sam Perlozzo or Bedard or even Tejada, a superstar in his own right.
There's a reason Ripken's reception before the first pitch yesterday dwarfed the ovation given to any current player. When they see him, Orioles fans are able to look past the losing seasons, the front office shuffles and the mounting fan discontent. He's a bridge to a better time in Baltimore baseball, when the Oriole Way was still pointed in a positive direction.
"I think today was a special day," Melvin Mora said after the game, "especially because Cal Ripken threw out the first ball. ... They remember him like a hero. They know what Cal Ripken did, not only for baseball, but for people and communities. They know him as a player and as a hero for everybody. Cal Ripken's name goes from here to Japan."
Ripken didn't get to see all of Daniel Cabrera's impressive pitching in the Orioles' 6-2 win. There was no time. Not with a 5 p.m. train to catch. He laughed, explaining that his travel schedule is much calmer than in his playing days, but I'm not so certain.
Last week, he was named as a studio analyst for TBS' postseason baseball broadcasts. He also started a new Web site - ripkenleadership.com - which was launched in conjunction with his just-released book Get in the Game, a motivational guide to success.
But, wait, there's much more.
Ripken is releasing another piece of literature this week, titled The Longest Season, a children's book that documents the Orioles' struggles in 1988. And he met with reporters before the Orioles' opener yesterday to announce a partnership with baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation will donate $1 million worth of cash and equipment.
Plus, he's courtside at NBA games, he's featured in commercial after commercial on television, writes a weekly Q&A column in The Sun and he's in the pace car at the Daytona 500. You could tell me that Ripken has formed an exploratory committee for president and I wouldn't be surprised. At each stop, he represents not just his own personal and business interests (of which there are many), but also the team that put him in the lineup for 21 seasons.
Yesterday, Ripken did an inning in the radio booth and an inning of television. Then the most important Oriole was gone. He had to be in New York for an 11-city book tour that begins today.
Say what you want about Ripken, but he's the Orioles' biggest ambassador this season, and every single place he goes in the next three months, he'll be taking his former team with him.
Few players are able to transcend their teams the way Ripken has, and few are associated with an organization the way Ripken is. And though it speaks to who Ripken is, it also reflects on what the Orioles have become. The Orioles are guaranteed some positive press these next few months, but pretty soon, they're going to have to create some new memories for fans.
With interests that reach into many corners of the business world, Ripken has found that there is life after baseball. His old team, however, is having a much tougher time finding life beyond Cal.
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