A SKINNY, blue-eyed kid from Aberdeen became an international baseball star -- and the most recognizable Marylander of the past quarter-century.
Cal Ripken Jr. is bound to get his 3,000th hit next year. That milestone eluded him when injury shortened his 1999 season, which for the Orioles ends today. But with or without it, his legacy in the great American pastime is as solid as a bronze plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame.
He gained global fame in 1995 when he surpassed a record every-one thought was unreachable: the streak of 2,130 consecutive games played by the New York Yankees' Lou Gehrig in the 1920s and '30s. For three more years, Ripken continued to defy the wear-and-tear of a baseball season by playing every game. He ended the streak voluntarily a year ago at 2,632 games.
Though he missed half this season when his 39-year-old back betrayed him, he finished as one of the Orioles' hottest hitters.
His ability to play baseball is only part of the story. His evolution as a goodwill ambassador for the game, and for his native state, is even more remarkable.
Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr., after all, was born to play ball. He was a great soccer player as well as a baseball pitcher and shortstop. His father was an Orioles coach. His mother spent a lot of time around the game herself. (When young Cal overheard parents justify to their sons that he had beat them in Little League because his dad was an Oriole, he'd resist the urge to tell them his mother taught him many of the finer points.)
His small-town, sports-oriented upbringing, however, couldn't have prepared him for what he became beyond the diamond: a venerated symbol for the game. That's evident by ovations he receives across the country. It's also proved by another stat: Fans nationwide have helped elect him to the starting lineup at the annual All Star Game a record 15 straight times.
He has only played for one team -- a unique achievement in an era of players jumping to the highest bidder. That he has played in his hometown his whole career is even rarer.
Maryland has been home to many famous athletes this century, including baseball Hall-of-Famers Babe Ruth, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson; the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard; football's Johnny Unitas, considered by many the greatest quarterback ever; not to mention the champion thoroughbreds Northern Dancer and Cigar. But Ripken became one of the most celebrated and widely recognized.
That's a result of the proliferation of sports in merchandising and on television. Today, athletes are also thrust -- often unwillingly --into the limelight as role models.
Ripken has made the most of those factors. His marketability -- he appears in commercials for everything from milk to grass seed -- has made him fabulously wealthy. More significantly, he is a comfortable role model.
He created an adult literacy program and his professionalism helped his sport reclaim fans after a strike canceled the '94 World Series.
A pastor once wrote The Sun to marvel that Ripken showed up unannounced to a child's birthday, complete with gifts, after learning that the youth was seriously ill. Says his agent, Ron Shapiro, who wrote a book about "The Power of Nice": "He is simply a nice man."
Marylanders think of themselves as humble, hard-working people. Even the state's obscure nickname, the Old Line State, refers to a feisty American Revolution regiment whose reliability impressed General Washington.
The state has liked to see itself in the waterman hauling crab pots out of the bay, in the farmer toiling in the field, in the homeowner scrubbing her rowhouse steps milky white.
Maryland also likes to see itself in Cal Ripken Jr., who approaches baseball every day as a job he badly needs -- when in actuality, it is the game that needs him.