Aberdeen -- Tomorrow evening, they'll gather and line up at the high school, where signs track the progress of the "Empty Goal Post Fund" to refurbish the football field. The school bands, the marching children, the homemade floats, the '67 Cadillac convertible the color of banana pudding and bearing the Chamber of Commerce banner -- they'll head down the main street, West Bel Air Avenue. Over the railroad tracks, past the employment service, the beauty parlor, the auto parts store, a couple of empty storefronts, the post office and City Hall, and then up Howard Street to finish at Festival Park, a bit of green space in an otherwise all-business, no-nonsense downtown.
That the honoree, the object of this homespun civic frippery, won't even be here doesn't strike anyone as odd or off-putting, even if he is going to appear in another parade earlier in the day in Baltimore. This celebration, after all, is as much for the city itself as for Aberdeen's most famous son. This is the place that produced the baseball player who produced one for the record books, an amazing consecutive games streak that, barring some unforeseen act of a very wicked god, will be set at 2,131 games tonight. And tomorrow, well, he's got a perfectly good reason for not attending the parade in his hometown.
"He's got to go to work," Jim McMahan, one of the event organizers, says simply enough. "That's his job."
Somehow, it's fitting that Cal Ripken Jr., baseball's day-in, day-out, company man, will be working -- on an out-of-town business trip, you could say -- as his hometown celebrates this ultimate working man from this ultimate working-class town.
In many ways, Cal Ripken is no different from many of the folks back home in this Harford County city of about 13,000: He was born and raised here, went to the public high school, and then went into his father's business. What sets him apart, of course, is that his father's business happened to be professional baseball.
Cal doesn't come around much anymore. He lives with his wife and two children in a "Dallas"-like spread in horsey Worthington Valley in Baltimore County. But his parents, Cal Sr. and Vi, are beloved citizens of Aberdeen, in the same modest house that their four children grew up in.
Still, Cal remains a presence here in an overriding, symbolic way, much as, say, Bruce Springsteen's spirit hovers over the Jersey shore long after he went Hollywood. Symbols are potent things, powerful enough to make plausible rather than laughable the idea of a millionaire athlete or rock star as a working-class hero.
"He's well-mannered, not with all the earrings and chains like other ballplayers," says Howie Travers, 31, a fireman at the Aberdeen Proving Ground who remains friends with Cal's brother, Bill, his high school baseball teammate. "The whole family is like that, all ethics and morals."
They call him Calvin around here, not because it's so appropriately the root of Calvinism, but because that's what he's always been called. And you can imagine a Calvin living in a place like this, a plain, solid, no-frills town that gives its name to the sprawling 72,000-acre Army installation to the east. Many military people who were based there over the years, in fact, stayed in town after they retired, and their houses set the tone for residential areas here, with their multiple flagpoles, tidily planted flower beds and wood-burned plaques out front that say Capt. Henry lives here.
'A party right here'
As The Streak is commemorated elsewhere with $5,000 on-field seats and $10 programs and near-embarrassing levels of hero worship, here in Cal's hometown, they're doing it up in characteristic fashion: simply, and with the fondness for a longtime neighbor rather than with the obsessive awe for a glittering celebrity. A big-screen TV was set up on the high school football field to air last night's record-tying game and tonight's record-breaking one. For $4, $3 in advance, you could come "Watch the Game on the Big Screen and Celebrate with your Community!" as the tickets say.
"I couldn't get a ticket to Orioles Park, so I said, 'Why don't we have a party right here, borrow some big screen TV and watch it together?' " says Mr. McMahan, who owns the radio station in town, WAMD. One thing led to another, and soon, storefronts were painted in orange and black and a parade was planned. Aberdeen has a parade every Christmas, leaving the Fourth of July to neighboring towns, and for the occasional special event, like 1992's centennial, and, now, Cal's breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record. Which gives Don Curry a chance to further his own streak.
"We always have a float in Aberdeen parades and, if there's a prize, we win it," the Century 21 Realtor declares.
It's a family tradition -- when he took over his father's agency, he also took over float-making responsibilities. The other tradition is to do everything at the last minute -- like the Christmas that they ran so late, they missed the gathering at the starting point and had to slip into the parade midstream. And so, Labor Day weekend found Mr. Curry and his gang feverishly sawing, drilling and painting their largest float yet -- a replica of Camden Yards, complete with the arched, red-brick facade, "Hit it here" sign and giant scoreboard. The only concern: Would it be too big to pull through the 19-foot bays of the garage they were constructing it in?
Mr. Curry, who at 36 was a year ahead of Cal in school, marshaled an evolving crew that flowed in and out of the garage throughout the weekend, his Realtors, their spouses, his siblings, his secretary's artistic daughter and any friends who happened to drop by. "That's why we do it," he says, "the involvement of the community."
Cal's parents, his brother Fred and sister Elly, two uncles and various spouses and children will ride the Curry float tomorrow night. It is Cal Sr. and Vi who, even more than their famous son, are embraced here. They're active in the town's Boys and Girls Club, and they give the occasional baseball clinic for kids, bringing Cal and brother Bill in for the day. And, they're simply long-timers who stayed put.
"We were a little surprised when Cal Jr. didn't locate in the area. But that's none of our business, of course," says Ruth Frank, a retired assistant to the town manager who helped organize the parade.
The event will mark the first time that Andy Lee will meet Cal Ripken, or, rather, life-size cutouts of the two will meet. The figures will decorate the float that Mr. Lee's store, the Short Stop Beverage Barn on Route 40, is entering in the parade to say, "Congratulations from The Short Stop to THE Shortstop."
And, no, the store wasn't named after Cal, but for the old drive-through lane that it used to have. In fact, Mr. Lee, who is just a year older than Cal, has never met the guy, probably because he went to Catholic high school and Cal went to public. Cal Sr., though, is a regular patron, often bringing in a bushel of tomatoes and zucchini from his garden for others to share.
On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of customers came in and out of the store, for lottery tickets, for cases of beer for the weekend or singles to drink more immediately. It's on the town's commercial strip, with small hotels, a bar that advertises karaoke, and a for-real silver diner, with its name, the New Ideal, in pink neon.
Like other towns, Aberdeen has seen its economy move outward, away from the traditional downtown district to the bigger lots closer to highways. There's now a Wal-Mart on Route 40 and shopping strips off the I-95 interchange. Unemployment isn't much of a problem; there are the Clorox and Frito-Lay plants, and, of course, the Proving Ground -- or the Post, as they call it here. But downtown's looking a little ragged these days even as fellow Harford County towns have become more attractive to outsiders: Havre de Grace to the north, picturesquely sited where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Susquehanna River, is billed as a little Annapolis; Bel Air to the south, with its malls and superstores and chain restaurants, is something of a little Towson.
But Aberdeen, well, it has Cal. (Although, in a friendly bit of rivalry, Havre de Grace notes that it is Cal's actual birthplace because he was born at Harford Memorial Hospital there.) And they're hoping to capitalize on that with a museum that will house memorabilia from his career as well as displays on the family's long ties to the area.
With a planned opening of next spring, organizers are seeking to attract sports fans to town as well as tourists who are already nearby at attractions like the Ordnance Museum at the Proving Ground, for example, and the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace. And once in town, all those people, or so the planners hope, will have to have somewhere to eat, somewhere to shop, somewhere to spend the night. "You're going to see downtown Aberdeen re-invent itself," declares Mr. McMahan, who is heading the museum effort.
In the meantime, the town is basking in the reflected glory of the spotlight that's shining so brightly on Cal. What's not to love about this wholesome, scandal-free, milk-fed figure as the face your town presents to the world?
"If I go out of town, like in Florida, and people ask me where I live and I say Aberdeen, Maryland, they all go, 'Oh, you're from Cal's town.' That's what everyone calls us, Cal's town," says Randall Overstreet, 13.
Randall and his friends have spent these waning days of summer biking through the woods and up and down the quiet streets of the hometown they share with Cal. The hoopla over the local hero adds something of a grace note to the season, taking some of the edge off going back to school.
It's not that they're big baseball fans. Wrestling is currently the big sport in the high school, they say, and as with others their age, football and basketball are more popular than baseball. Still, Cal is one of them, which is something to be proud of even if they're not entirely clear on why the rest of the world has suddenly discovered him.
"He's doing something like Babe Ruth's record, right?" guesses Donald Rust Jr., 16.
To this group of boys, the sons of truck drivers and machinists and cleaning ladies and other work-a-day workers, Cal is both familiar and remote. Of Aberdeen, if not in Aberdeen. Someone for whom how he does his job is perhaps even more important than what that job is.
Donald Spangler, 13, remembers his first year playing baseball at the local parks and rec department, and how the coaches would motivate them. "They'd say," Donald recalls, "like, Cal would practice for hours."