Some urban legends in sports are almost impossible to kill. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the one about how Michael Jordan didn't really retire from the NBA in 1995, and that it was actually an 18-month suspension for excessive gambling by commissioner David Stern that led to Jordan's minor league baseball career. Never mind that no one has ever unearthed a shred of evidence supporting this, or even had the stones to ask Jordan or Stern about it publicly (to my knowledge), the rumor lives on. It's become the Area 51 of sports journalism. There are young sports reporters out there, some of whom were in grade school when Jordan was at his peak, who dream of breaking this story like it's their Watergate.
The other most popular urban legend, oddly, belongs to Cal Ripken, and I heard it long before I ever called Baltimore my home. Essentially, the legend goes, Ripken wasn't able to play one night during the streak -- having injured himself by punching out actor Kevin Costner -- and so the Orioles secretly decided to cancel the game that night (claiming a light malfunction) because Ripken couldn't make it to the ballpark.
It doesn't matter how many times the rumor gets shot down; it lives on. Ripken was on the NPR program Talk of the Nation this week to promote his new book, "Eight Elements of Perseverance" and for the first time that I've heard, Ripken addressed the urban legend in response to a question from a caller.
It comes just before the 24-minute mark, when Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan reads an e-mail from someone named "Patrick" who asks if there is any truth to the rumors the Orioles cancelled a game one night when the lights didn't work, and says that if it went down like people believe it did, real Orioles fans wouldn't blame him.
As usual, Ripken handled the question with class, sidestepping the more salacious bits of gossip, and debunking the legend that he wasn't even at the ballpark that night.
"It's easy to check the facts of that one," Ripken says. "I remember it very well. The bank of lights went off and Randy Johnson was pitching for the Seattle Mariners. And we were deciding what to do about that. Was there enough visible light out there to actually see a guy throwing over 100 miles per hour? The bank was just over our dugout. And I physically went out and tested it for the umpire. I was in discussion with the umpires. I was definitely there, I was ready to play. And the funny part about it was we all decided it was better that we play that night, because the next day would have been a Sunday day game, and Randy Johnson would have been throwing out of of the stands, and in day games he's much harder to see. So we all decided that we were going to go. Evidently [Mariners manager] Lou Piniella told Seattle a little different story that the game wasn't going to go, and they started leaving the ballpark, so we didn't have that option after all. We scheduled it for the next day, and we played. But I definitely was there. And I'm sure I was on camera a number of times being out on the field."
The whole interview is worth listening to, especially if you're an Orioles fan.
Feel free to add your own favorite sports conspiracy or urban legend below.
Sun photo: John Makely