I AM SEARCHING the morning sports pages for signs of a punch line. There is none. The sports pages carry conjecture that Cal Ripken Jr. could wear a baseball uniform next year not belonging to the Baltimore Orioles. A joke, certainly. A punch line must be buried somewhere between the lines. Why, it's like imagining John Unitas leaving the Baltimore Colts for some outfit such as the San Diego Chargers.
Oops, bad example.
Before this Ripken misunderstanding gets too far out of hand, can we state the obvious? Cal has reached that awkward stage in his life where he is too old and aching to play baseball every day, but too youthful and resilient to content himself with pickup basketball games.
And the Orioles have reached that awkward stage in their history where they are rebuilding with youngsters but understand the pressures of both history and the box office.
The ball club and its marquee ballplayer need each other's goodwill, instead of the current mutual suspiciousness and veiled antipathy. The Orioles absolutely understand the special place Ripken holds in fans' hearts - and Cal surely appreciates the pedestal on which he has been placed as a future Hall of Famer, as an Oriole lifer in an era of revolving-door ballplayers and as a local kid who made good.
But he is an autumn player in a springtime game. Around here, many mark their calendars by the milestones in Ripken's career. An entire generation still remembers him rounding third after his first major league home run - with his daddy waiting in the coach's box to shake his hand. We remember him squeezing that last line drive out of the '83 World Series. And we carry in our hearts that mystical jog around the ballpark the night he caught the ghost of Lou Gehrig.
Given his druthers, Cal would love to be 20 again and start all over. Who wouldn't? Or 30 again, with summers in the grass still ahead of him. But, three weeks ago, he turned 40. When he circles the bases now, Cal sees not the fatherly figure coaching at third but his contemporary, Eddie Murray, coaching at first.
Given their druthers, the Orioles, too, would make Cal 20 again. But they cannot. And they have on their hands a 40-year-old who is a special case. There's no getting around that. He's a special case because of The Streak, and the hometown connection, and the 20 years of goodwill in this community.
Those things count. They represent not only athletic excellence but old-fashioned virtues such as loyalty and hard work that we wish to associate with the game but often cannot.
We have been this way before. We remember Unitas, with his body battered beyond repair, still believing he could play football worthy of his name, and unthinkably putting on the San Diego uniform when the Baltimore Colts saw the need to rebuild and failed to offer Unitas a meaningful position in the organization. That confrontation still causes grown-ups to wince. And we remember Brooks Robinson, that figure of joy for so many summers at Memorial Stadium, not wanting to yield to the body's creakiness.
But those two stayed for reasons that cannot concern Cal. They had labored for years with no financial security to show for it at the end. In the new sports economy, Ripken makes more in a season than either of these men made in their entire lives.
But he does not wish to stay for the money. He still treasures the game, and the rituals surrounding it. He still believes he can contribute. He wants to be a role model and tutor for these kids. He still seems to have some pop in his bat.
But even these factors have become blurred. Ripken plays for a ball club whose majority owner is Peter Angelos, and he is represented legally by Ron Shapiro. Angelos and Shapiro have not spoken to each other since the Jon Miller debacle.
This is a pity for everyone around them. Now they communicate via newspaper story, which makes for dramatic reading but does no justice to the autumn of Cal Ripken's playing days.
The Orioles need all the help they can get. The football Ravens now capture the newspaper headlines, and some people's enthusiasm, as well. The Orioles' attendance has dropped in recent weeks, and no one is certain if fans will fill the park next spring for players whose names they are still learning.
The names they know are no bet to stick around. The club would love to find a sucker to take Albert Belle. They think Mike Mussina's demands are out of line, even in today's farfetched economy. And Brady Anderson seems odd man out in the youth movement.
There is only one Cal Ripken Jr. The Orioles are not insensitive enough to want him to play elsewhere; and Cal is smart enough to know this. Everyone awaits his own diagnosis: Does he feel well enough to play another year? This will determine everything. It also makes him a special case among all ballplayers. But he is Ripken.