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In baseball, Cal can hit the curve in life, he plays it straight


"Couldn't hit the curve" was the answer that shot back when, Sunday afternoon in Reisterstown, I inquired about a certain golden-haired lad who had been drafted to play in the American League -- once upon a time. "Nope, couldn't hit the curve." Such is the epitaph for a lot of once-upon-a-time baseball players and the careers of which they dreamed in the little-boy bedrooms of Baltimore and beyond. It's one of the things that separate Cal Ripken from the rest of us.

Stephen King can write incessantly, with brief pauses for vital human function, and crank out best-selling novel after best-selling novel.

Yo-Yo Ma can fiddle through hours of high and flawless performance; he's already booked to play the concert halls of the world in the next century.

James Earl Jones can make the phone book sound like "Othello."

Winton Marsalis can go forever without hitting a bum note.

Robert Duvall might never stink up a movie.

Robert Mondavi might never bottle a dog, consistency in wine being his trademark.

My brother Eddie might never miss a day at work in the supermarket warehouse.

But none could hit the curve. Not the one major leaguers throw. Not from April to October. Not for 13 years. Not well enough and frequently enough to make a life in professional baseball. And when you hear comparisons between Cal Ripken and the everyday working heroes out there -- the assembly line regulars, the UPS guy with the spotless driving record, the short-order cook who hasn't missed a day of work since Truman was president -- remember: They are all honorable people, but they couldn't hit the curve.

I emphasize it today because it doesn't get emphasized enough. Over his career, Cal Ripken has batted .264, .318, .304, .282 a couple of times, .323, .315. He had some seasons in the .250s. But that's still 250 points higher than 99 percent of the nation's male population could hit, if presented the challenge.

So it was hard work that got Cal Ripken to this historic day. It was luck, too.

But it was also that raw, focused talent that put him on track. In America, we accord special stature to men who can hit the curve, who can survive long seasons in professional baseball. It wasn't just that Cal showed up every day. He showed up every day and got enough hits, and fielded enough grounders without error, to remain a big leaguer all his life -- and not end up selling cars or tending bar or writing newspaper columns.

Still, we're honoring more than talent today. Talent we can honor any day.

Every time Barry Bonds hits a home run.

Every time Andre Agassi hits a winner.

Every time Luciano Pavarotti hits that long, high one in "Nessun Dorma." You can always applaud talent.

It's sportsmanship, humility and integrity we honor today.

Sure, Cal can hit the curve, and he worked hard to play shortstop at a consistently high level. He's lucky his knees didn't turn to jelly when he turned 30, or that Rickey Henderson never nailed him good on a slide.

But Cal makes us proud for a lot of other reasons, and what follows might sound corny, but I don't care. Let the wise guys from New York and Boston sneer all they want.

Baltimore is wild about Cal Ripken because of the way he conducts himself on and off the field, the charities he supports, the way he carefully selects products to endorse, the way he has indulged all the media hype this year, the fact that he's been a professional athlete for so long and never once showed up in Police Blotter -- all of that is what we applaud. He's never shamed us.

It's easy to say but it's also true: The world of sport has many jerks, multimillion-dollar poster boys who never learned the responsibilities and delicate ethics of their positions in life. And, with no pretense of being role models, a lot of them have taught kids all the wrong things. Instead of sportsmanship, they've given them that bratty, in-your-face, shame-your-opponent model that is now standard in American sports-media culture. "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"

I don't know if Cal Ripken set out on a heroic journey to reverse this unhealthy trend. But it worked out that way, didn't it?

One other very important thing about Cal. He's loyal. Well paid, for sure. But loyal. He never wanted to leave Baltimore, as far as anyone knows. Ours is the age of flimsy loyalties. The corporate sharks who employ most of America hardly ever acknowledge, never mind reward, loyalty. We live in a fickle, channel-surfing political culture where the electorate changes its mind every two years and politicians switch parties (and their souls) as if they were wrinkled suits. We live on shaky ground. Cal has held his. And he can hit the curve.

Help for ailing girl

A Baltimore-area contractor who wishes to remain anonymous offered $5,000 for Patty Lewis' tickets to tonight's game. As reported in this space Monday, Patty and her husband, Chuck, decided to sell their left-field box seats to the highest bidder and use the money to defray medical expenses of their 3-year-old niece, Shannon Kerley, who was diagnosed with leukemia last month. More than 135 men and women called This Just In to make a bid on the tickets or to offer donations. Patty and Chuck, as well as Shannon's parents, Jim and Kathy Kerley, send out a big thanks to all who offered to help.

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