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We Love You, Cal, Oh, Yes, We Do!


The Pride of Aberdeen has made us proud. Now the local folks are hoping he'll make them famous.

Cal Ripken Jr.'s record streak has given his hometown an inspiring psychological boost that soars above the more mundane recent municipal achievements, such as increasing water supplies, adding hundreds of new jobs and opening activity centers for the elderly and youngsters.

The local celebrations that marked his path to the major league consecutive-games record reflected a heartfelt joy and exhilaration for the achievement of a bona fide hometown hero, born and raised in Harford County, in a family whose ancestors have deep roots here.

No one could ask for a more fitting sports star to honor, an old-fashioned role model in a public arena where that seems to be an endangered species. A class act with durability, reliability and extreme determination as much a part of his accomplishment as his skills of the game.

Giant television screens at the Aberdeen High School football field let hundreds of folks share the emotion of the record-tying and record-setting games played by Ripken. Signs along the entryways to Aberdeen proclaimed the countdown (or count-up?) to the record, with daily changing numbers.

The Aberdeen High marching band was near to setting a school record for fall appearances, with various Ripken parades and Orioles games. A human greeting card filled the high school field on his 35th birthday last month.

Ripken Plaza was unveiled aside the current City Hall on West Bel Air Avenue, after a parade and more ceremonies in adjacent Festival Park.

The squat stone-block, tin-roofed City Hall will be the home of the new Ripken Museum, a repository of Cal Jr. memorabilia as well as those of his family.

The future Hall of Famer insisted that it encompass his family in name and mementos if it were built. That's the strength of family in the man that further endears him to his community, where everyone seems to find a legitimate personal connection to the Ripkens.

The idea of the baseball museum emerged late last year, followed by a quick and barely discussed vote of the Aberdeen City Council to pay $210,000 for the vacant bank building next door as the new City Hall.

The urgency of the measure was partly spurred by recognition that the Baltimore shortstop could break Lou Gehrig's Iron Man record in the 1995 season, although the continuing strike/lockout cast doubt on that prediction.

But it was largely prompted by concerns about the economic stagnation of Aberdeen's downtown, even as the outskirts were growing. The scene of vacant buildings was especially felt along West Bel Air Avenue, near City Hall.

Renaming a street, dedicating a park or athletic field, erecting a celebratory plaque could have paid tribute to Cal Ripken Jr., before or after the record.

But economic development for the town demanded something more, a lasting attraction for tourism and commerce, a way to capitalize on his remarkable record. The Ripken Museum was something close at hand. No development plan or study was needed, once Mayor Charles Boutin got the OK from Mr. Ripken's agent.

Now comes the hard part: creating an attractive museum, relocating the city offices and chambers, and proving that the idea can work as economic development.

Predictably, the sports souvenir shops are excited by the prospect of the museum. Customers at the Aberdeen collector card store across from City Hall already ask for directions to the Ripken museum, which is not scheduled to open until sometime next year.

But how many other local businesses will find economic recovery in the uncertain flow of visitors to the museum, how many solid new establishments will spring up?

There's a question of adequate parking space. If the museum proves popular, where will visitors find parking? If the numbers are more modest, will that justify downtown commercial expansion?

The museum will get the city building on a lease-purchase basis. No tax money will be asked, museum president Jim McMahan says, so it won't be a public burden. (But the mayor keeps talking about a hotel tax to finance the project.)

To some, the museum may seem premature. It would be the only true public museum for an active major league player (despite the "family" label). The museum's magnetism for non-local visitors will be questionable. There's no such museum to Pete Rose (and his batting records) or to Rickey Henderson (the all-time stolen base king) or to many other stars who are in baseball's Hall of Fame. There's none for Hank Aaron, or for Gehrig. The popularity of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore offers no meaningful basis of comparison.

So the Ripken museum may not prove to be an economic dynamo for downtown Aberdeen, regardless of good intentions.

But it is highly important to Aberdeen and environs as a celebration of homebred achievement, a point of civic pride, a platform to proclaim the city's attachment to the national nTC pastime. He is one of us, exceptional though he be, the museum says.

It's a way to honor a native son, and puff out one's chest at the same time. Build it and maybe they will come, the streams of free-spending baseball fanatics. But build it mainly to celebrate: the community and baseball's Iron Man.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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