Ripken is in a league of his own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So, the news is out: The editors at Sports Illustrated have named Cal Ripken their Sportsman of the Year, to be recognized in next week's issue.

It's indisputably big news for one of Bawlmer's own, a rare and significant honor that will only add to Ripken's legend.

But who else was SI going to pick, Don King?

Bud Selig?

Art Modell?

As much as Ripken is obviously deserving of the honor for breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record and playing in 2,153 straight games -- "maybe the greatest athletic achievement of our lifetime," Mike Mussina called it -- the rest of the sports world didn't offer much competition in 1995.

Where else but to Ripken could SI go with an award honoring high principle and/or accomplishment? Mike Tyson? Jerry Jones? Maybe Tom Osborne, who will defend a national title in the Fiesta Bowl with a Nebraska football team including a tailback who assaulted his ex-girlfriend in September, a linebacker who assaulted a beauty pageant winner and a wide receiver up on charges of second-degree murder?

Hmm, guess not. Let's see, who were some of the other major headline- makers this year? There was Jeff Tarango, who walked off a Wimbledon court and whined about the criticism. There was Barry Bonds, who said it wasn't in his job description to chase fly balls. There was that soccer player who went into the stands and kicked a fan during a game in England.

There was the North Carolina high school football coach who ran up the score on the team from the school for the deaf, winning 100-42.

Dennis Rodman?

"Hurricane" McNeeley?

Bud Adams?

Bryan "#$!" Cox?

Oh, and what about Donald Fehr, who brilliantly held a union meeting in the Angels' clubhouse on the night Ripken broke Gehrig's record?

Let's face it, Ripken as Sportsman of the Year is a no-brainer, a slam dunk, a 10-inch putt. He is the win, place and show horse in this high-profile race.

He hit just .262 with 17 homers in '95, but this award isn't about statistics. It is about an achievement that caused Ripken to embody the old-fashioned values of loyalty, diligence, humility and perseverance at a time when the rest of sports has become a shrill circus of empty noise, hype and rampant me-firstism.

Take a look at baseball. No commissioner, no labor agreement, hundreds of ballplayers who reneged on their promise to sign autographs all season. The manager of the World Series winner slapped his wife in May.

Football? Lawsuits flying everywhere, franchises jumping around like crazed kangaroos, cardboard commissioner who can't remember what he said. Swell.

Basketball? A new generation of sullen superstars.

Ripken's star shines brighter and brighter with every comparison. Never mind his remarkable feat of playing in every game for 13-plus seasons. He signs autographs, doesn't renegotiate his contract, fulfills his commitments.

Whether or not SI intended it as such, naming Ripken sends a message to the rest of the sports world:

Shape up.

Not that anyone else out there will get the message.

Oh, sure, there were other athletes whose '95 performances rated consideration. How about Greg Maddux, who had a near-perfect season? How about Pete Sampras, who won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, came up huge in the Davis Cup finals and did it all with dignity?

What about Jeff Gordon, who blew away the NASCAR circuit as a 24-year-old rookie? What about the Houston Rockets, who showed the world that teamwork still mattered? What about Ben Crenshaw, who turned the Masters into a tear-jerker?

None of those rates with Ripken, of course. His accomplishment was genuine sports history, the kind that will resonate for as long as games are played.

He would have won this award even in a year when there was heavy competition.

But it was a lean year, for sure. And it was a flat-out bad year for the superstar types who usually win this kind of thing.

Michael Jordan? Tried and failed to organize an NBA strike. Clank.

Joe Montana? Lost his last game and retired. Clank.

Don Shula? Outta here. Clank.

David Stern? Saved the sport, jobbed the refs. Semi-clank.

O. J.?

Enough said?

Congratulations, Cal.

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