For Ripken, opportunity knocked here


Cal Ripken couldn't grace Baltimore with his 3,000th hit, but he will indulge Orioles fans who cheer him tonight, and again on April 30 when the team honors him with a pre-game ceremony.

He understands his special place not just in baseball history, but also in club history. He also understands something deeper -- that all this might not have been possible if he had played in another town, for another team.

"I'm glad I don't have to think about that," Ripken said before last night's game against Tampa Bay was rained out, delaying his Camden Yards homecoming.

"If I had been drafted by another club, I might never have gotten the opportunity to play shortstop. I might have been a pitcher and hurt my arm and never had a career.

"The fact that things have worked out for me the way they have, that I've been able to play as long as I have, and live and play in a place that I choose, those are very special things, and I'm very thankful about that opportunity."

Ripken is right -- most teams projected him as a pitcher coming out of high school, but late Orioles scout Dick Bowie suggested that the club play him at shortstop, and former manager Earl Weaver moved him from third base to short at the major-league level.

All Ripken did was revolutionize the position, becoming the greatest power-hitting shortstop of all time. By proving that a bigger man could field the position, he paved the way for players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

That alone would be a staggering legacy, and Ripken said yesterday that he was proud to leave such a mark on the sport. But his most celebrated achievement, of course, is his record streak of 2,632 consecutive games played.

Mike Mussina believes The Streak gave Ripken the additional at-bats he needed to reach 3,000 hits and 400 homers. And The Streak might not have happened if Ripken played in another town, for another team.

Obviously, Ripken possessed the talent, strength and resolve to catch Lou Gehrig, regardless of the circumstances. But the circumstances were right for him in Baltimore. And he seized the opportunity to the fullest.

Just for argument's sake, try to imagine Ripken in another place, under the already flawed assumption that he could have played shortstop somewhere else.

New York? George Steinbrenner would have ended The Streak during one of Ripken's prolonged batting slumps, claiming, "He's no Gehrig."

The Mets would have encouraged Ripken to chase the former Yankee's record, but it's difficult to imagine any player enduring the tabloid circus for nearly two decades.

Boston? The city had a love-hate relationship with Ted Williams.

Philly? Please.

Maybe The Streak could have evolved in a Midwestern city, where Ripken's blue-collar ethic would have been embraced as powerfully as it is in Baltimore.

Or maybe Ripken could have played all those consecutive games in a West Coast city with a moderate climate, like Anaheim or Oakland.

But it's doubtful that he could have broken Gehrig's record if he had played on artificial turf in Kansas City or St. Louis for the bulk of his career.

And it's doubtful he would have remained with one team if his career had started in a baseball wasteland like Municipal Stadium in Cleveland or Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

The only other active major-leaguer who means as much to his city is Tony Gwynn, a San Diego native who has spent his entire career with the Padres.

The more you think about it, the more you realize that the Ripken phenomenon could only have happened in this town, with this team.

This town, where Ripken faced less media scrutiny than he would have in larger markets; and where he was embraced as a native son, embodying working-class virtues that Baltimoreans hold dear.

This team, for which his father, Cal Ripken Sr., spent the better part of three decades teaching "The Oriole Way;" and on which Junior's other main influence was Eddie Murray, a future Hall of Famer who rarely missed a game.

Put it all together, and it's easy to understand why the celebrations of Ripken's milestones are not just celebrations of the player, but also celebrations of this town and this team.

Still, as much as Orioles fans would have enjoyed seeing Ripken collect his 3,000th hit in Baltimore, he displayed his usual impeccable sense of timing by closing the deal Saturday night in Minnesota.

If Ripken had fallen short, he likely would have sat Sunday, then resumed his quest against Tampa Bay in the three-game series that was set to begin last night at Camden Yards.

Manager Mike Hargrove had established precedent for such a move, sitting Ripken the previous Saturday afternoon. And a day off from artificial turf would have been entirely justified, considering that Ripken is coming off back surgery.

No matter, the benching would have raised suspicions that the Orioles were trying to manipulate Ripken's schedule. Neither Hargrove nor Ripken would ever interfere with the game's integrity. But better that the questions never arose.

The celebrations at Camden Yards will come, tonight and on April 30.

"I don't see it as a bonus for me personally," Ripken said. "I see it as a continuing celebration for baseball, especially here in Baltimore, where we really care about baseball, care about the Orioles.

"That kind of feeling, that kind of celebration, should continue."

For Ripken. For his town. For his team.

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