We love you, Baltimore -- as Cal reminds us


Those who say Cal Ripken saves baseball from its self-inflicted wounds have tunnel vision. They should have been on Charles Street last week, or hanging onto the railing of a footbridge over Pratt Street, or somewhere in the vast crowd at Harborplace, where the Ripken experience was reminding an entire city that it can still believe in itself.

The grand Ripken parade felt like summers past. It felt like the discovery of the first City Fairs, or the early ethnic festivals. It felt like those years when the city came out of its self-protective crouch, when it shelved its fears for a few moments and indulged in a little outdoor group therapy.

"This type of thing only happens in Baltimore," Ripken told the lunchtime crowd (which -- can we say this? -- stayed so long that they seemed to miss the whole point of Cal's record: Ya gotta go to work, folks!)

Maybe Ripken's right about Baltimore, and maybe not. Maybe such an outpouring of affection could happen elsewhere, but it still feels good to hear him stroke his town, anyway.

We need something to make us feel good about this city. The summer's been politically poisonous. Too many streets are dirty and dangerous. The parade gave us a reminder of what we first learned with the early City Fairs: Whatever our problems, whatever our mutual suspicions, the people who live here love to gather for glad times, and they feel good about their community and each other when they do.

"Let me tell you," Rick Dempsey was saying Wednesday night at Camden Yards, as he watched Ripken float around the ballpark. "This makes me proud of Cal, but it reminds me" -- the old Orioles catcher's voice clutched here -- "how much I miss this town. When they love you, they just love you."

"A great city," said Ken Singleton. The former outfielder, who took a few days off from his Montreal Expos announcing job to be here for Ripken, sat with his parents behind home plate. "A moment like this makes me proud to have played here. Proud of Rip, yeah, but it also brings back so many memories of being an Oriole and being in Baltimore."

There was a time when such things seemed to count for more than they do now. The Ripken experience was a reminder. Last week, Earl Weaver walked onto the field, saw the evening's umpires and hugged them hilariously. This, from a guy who used to bite them on the ankle.

But the comedy of such a gesture only existed because we know Earl. He was here for 15 years, through joy and rage and World Series games and traffic tickets, too. We know Singleton, know his dignity and his sensitivity, because he was here for a decade. We know Dempsey, through World Series heroics and rainout belly-flops, because he was here for a decade and more.

We need people who stick around: in baseball uniform, and in this city's troubled neighborhoods, too. The Ripken parade reminded us of the pleasures we sometimes feel, not merely because an athlete broke a record, but because thousands of us, on some level, know each other.

We have common denominators of happiness and pain. We share the weather, and the backups on the Jones Falls Expressway, and also the years of sitting at the ballpark and wondering why the thing that once seemed so constant -- Orioles Magic -- has flickered only occasionally since 1983.

Here's an unanticipated truth: As the Ripken parade made its way down Charles Street, the ballplayers were bathed in generalized affection. But the crowd had to wait until many of the players had passed to be certain who they were. Their faces aren't familiar enough; we needed to see the names on the

backs of their jerseys.

They haven't been here long enough. There was a time, when Cal Ripken was just starting out, when Earl Weaver played attack dog with umpires instead of hugging them, when Ken Singleton was hearing the roar from Section 34 to "Come on, Ken, put it in the bullpen" and Rick Dempsey was climbing the backstop for pop fouls, when those who wore Orioles uniforms stayed and stayed.

They became part of the city, and felt its love like members of a family and not strangers passing through. Maybe some of the newly arrived Orioles got a sense of that last week. Curtis Goodwin was happily videotaping people in the crowd who were videotaping him. Bobby Bonilla had people rushing up to his car just to touch him and ignoring police pleas for everybody to stay in line.

Bonilla's only been here a month, but he's shown us some nice things. Those around this sometimes-lifeless ballclub say he's a rah-rah guy in the dugout. It was Bonilla, along with Rafael Palmeiro, who pushed Ripken onto the field for his victory lap, which was not only one of the great moments in baseball history, but . . .

"Bigger," said Chuck Thompson, the golden voice who was there for both events. "Bigger than the '58 Colts. The Sudden Death game was a football game. What's happened in our city this week is never gonna happen again."

Not in these particulars, no. But the city can learn to feel good about itself again, and the Ripken moment helped remind us what we're so hungry to bring back: a sense of gathering for happy times, for learning to feel comfortable with each other instead of disillusioned.

"My wife and family say I don't know how to show my emotions," Cal Ripken said last week. So some anonymous guy in the crowd, with a bullhorn voice and a Bawlamer accent, bellowed it out for him.

"We love you, man."

Everybody laughed out loud, Ripken included.

"And I love this game," Ripken said, "and I love the city."

And that's a pretty good starting place for all of us.

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