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Quiet guy adopts an open stance toward celebrity


The line of autograph seekers stretched up Aisle 26 and onto the concourse -- hundreds of adults and kids waiting past midnight for one moment, one meeting, one memory, one signature.

Cal Ripken tried to oblige them all, though it soon became apparent that that would not be possible. He also had to make time for news conferences and charity appearances and that "Like A Rock" commercial shoot. He had to make time for Kelly and the kids. And, oh yeah, there's that game tomorrow, whatever number it is.

But his sense of responsibility got the best of him. The game needed him. The Orioles needed him. The family needed him. Maybe the world needed him. So he showed up and signed. Hour after hour. Night after night, until the club and stadium officials decided it had become too much of a logistical problem, or he would still be out there. In a sport that has spent the past year distancing itself from the fans, Cal Ripken -- on his way to baseball immortality -- has willingly become its human touch.

"It takes someone with that larger vision to patch up some of the wounds that afflict the game," said California Angels pitcher Jim Abbott, who is something of an inspiration himself. "I find myself thinking about that and signing more autographs, too. If the players have a role model, Cal is it."

Funny thing is, Ripken never went looking for any of this. He didn't set out to save baseball any more than he set out to break one of the most revered records in professional sports. He has never been a vocal clubhouse leader. He has never sought out media attention. He only recently has allowed himself to take full advantage of the vast commercial possibilities created by his impressive performance on the field and his squeaky-clean image off it. He is a quiet guy who always has gone about things in a quiet way, only to find himself no longer able to stay out of the public eye.

So, for one season at least, he has stopped trying. Instead of drawing himself in, he has spent the past five months reaching out. And, like everything else he does, his personal public relations campaign has been carefully planned and perfectly executed.

"Yes, I consciously assumed a role -- a responsibility -- for the sake of baseball, and maybe unconsciously, too," Ripken said. "I realize everybody is interested in this. By making that conscious decision, it has actually freed me up to enjoy it a bit more."

Even the man who caught Lou Gehrig might not be big enough to repair the damage done to the game by decades of mismanagement and labor strife, but he has accepted the job anyway. And he was under no obligation to take a leadership role in Baltimore's long-running literacy campaign, but he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to create and fund The Ripken Learning Center. It all goes back to that same sense of duty that spawned The Streak.

Through it all, he has managed to maintain a surprisingly normal family life, spending as much time with 5-year-old Rachel and 2-year-old Ryan as is possible on a ballplayer's schedule. The Iron Man softens up considerably once he leaves the ballpark.

"When he's home, he wants to relax," Kelly Ripken said. "He wants to play with the kids -- watch movies or play games. But it's not like he doesn't do his fair share. He'll change a diaper and he's a great breakfast maker. Every Sunday, he makes pancakes."

Ripken has become so entangled with his baseball persona that it is hard to picture him flipping pancakes or folding diapers, but home is the one place where he can leave his carefully constructed image on the porch.

"Of course we're proud [of The Streak], but we're proud of him and his accomplishments away from the game even more than && his accomplishments in the game," said his mother, Vi. "The way he's handled these things, sometimes I can't believe it, but he has the right personality for it."

Came by it honestly.

Ripken had the Nike mentality long before anybody had ever heard of Nike. He got it from the archetypal "Just Do It" guy, who just happens to go by the same name. Cal Ripken Sr. drilled into his children the old-school work ethic that has carried his most famous son into the hallowed annals of baseball history. The old man didn't believe in sick leave, and neither does the boy.

"The whole streak has happened because he just wanted to go out and play every day," said Cal Sr. "He didn't set out to break a record.

"The thing I always say about him is he always had his priorities in the right order. When he was struggling early, he went to winter ball and did the things he needed to do to start his career. He worked at it."

There are clear differences in their personalities. Cal Sr. is a rough-hewn, drill-sergeant type who would rather tell it to you straight and hurt your feelings than risk a misunderstanding. Junior has worked hard to create an almost genteel image, and he would rather avoid a controversial subject than risk offending someone.

There are also similarities. Cal Sr. is obsessive about doing things the right way. The fundamental way. Cal Jr. picked that up early and has turned routine into a religion. He might be the most practiced baseball player in history, which may go a long way toward explaining how he has been "lucky" enough to avoid serious injury for 14 years.

"Everyone's focused on this number," Cal Sr. said last week. "I don't look at that number. I know that when that day comes, the next day he's going to play in the ballgame as usual . . . and next year he'll want to play, too."

For all the recent excitement that has been generated by The Streak, it is not the most exciting of records, and Ripken -- for all the excitement he can generate with his bat and glove -- does not come off as an exciting guy. But even that appears to be part of the plan.

Talk to some of his teammates and you'll hear stories of a fun-loving, outgoing competitor who still has enough energy to play tapeball in the clubhouse after a couple thousand straight games. Talk to Ripken himself and he'll withdraw into a cloud of humble platitudes, as if he long ago decided that the best way to dilute an endless stream of interview requests is to be as prosaic as possible. In that sense, he is a walking contradiction in terms, because there are moments when he can seem both aloof and self-effacing at the same time.

"It's really a personality thing," Ripken said. "There was a certain code of behavior that I felt I should adopt. I don't think I am controversial. I've been through my share of controversy, but I don't have a controversial personality. I'm not combative. I don't do rash things. I guess you could say that's dull if you want to, but that's who I am."

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