Wrong about Ripken

It was my wife who wanted to name our son for a baseball player.

When he was born 11 years ago, the prospect made me cringe. I thought a child's name ought to have more significance than mere affection for a guy whose contribution to society was hitting a baseball.

During that summer of 1995, though, my wife had grown fond of the name "Cal." At the time, the nation was counting down the days until Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. When the day arrived to make our son's name official, I knew better than to argue with a woman who had just given me a child through a large incision in her belly. So when we left the hospital, I carried out a boy named for a ballplayer.

This month, that player received baseball's greatest honor. In the days preceding the announcement of Mr. Ripken's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, there was speculation he might become the first candidate in history to receive a unanimous vote. But after the results were tallied, Mr. Ripken hadn't made a clean sweep. Out of 545 ballots cast, a paltry eight voters failed to mark his name.

One of them, Paul Ladewski, my colleague at the Daily Southtown in Chicago, turned in a blank ballot, explaining in a column that allegations of steroid use from 1993 to 2004 left him unable to support any player of the era for Hall of Fame induction. Not even Mr. Ripken.

"Besides," Mr. Ladewski wondered, "what makes ... Ripken so special" that he deserves to be a unanimous selection?

Maybe I can help you, Paul.

I won't bother rattling off the list of Mr. Ripken's career statistics, although they certainly measure up. I won't even contend that his streak of consecutive games qualifies him for unanimous induction, even if it captured the hearts of the nation's average Joes and at least one mother-to-be back in 1995.

I won't try to sway you with the fact that, unlike so many superstars who distance themselves from fans, Mr. Ripken was accessible, a regular fixture near the stands who graciously signed tens of thousands of autographs.

I won't attempt to twist your arm by mentioning that Mr. Ripken proved his dedication by playing every day for three more years after he broke Mr. Gehrig's record. Or that in 1999, officials of Babe Ruth League Inc., one of the world's largest youth baseball organizations, with more than 700,000 participants, thought so highly of him that they changed the name of its largest division to the Cal Ripken Baseball Division.

You probably wouldn't even be convinced if I told you Mr. Ripken's charitable foundation, in conjunction with Nike, refurbishes ball fields in disadvantaged neighborhoods and has donated upward of $2 million to purchase baseball equipment for Boys and Girls Clubs and underfunded schools around the country. It probably wouldn't even help if I noted that Mr. Ripken is a national leader in creating educational programs aimed at eliminating the adult craziness associated with so much of youth baseball.

No, I'll bet that despite Mr. Ripken's 25-year history of athletic excellence, generosity and personal integrity, there's little I can say that would cause you to put your faith in a ballplayer who spent half his career competing during, as you called it, the "steroids era."

There is this, though.

In the winter of 2003, my son Cal, then 7 years old, drew a picture of Mr. Ripken and wrote him a fan letter, describing how the ballplayer had once signed his glove at a White Sox game. With the faith only a child possesses, he sent his work off to an address in Baltimore, and hoped.

A month later, he returned home from school to discover the best surprise of his young life waiting in the mailbox. Inside a large envelope, he found two photos and a letter.

"Dear Cal," it read. "Thanks for the letter and the great drawing you sent me. It seems like you love baseball as much as I do! You mentioned we met in Chicago and I signed your glove. I always enjoyed playing ball in Chicago. The fans were great, and they really support their teams. Along with this letter, I have enclosed a couple of signed photographs for you. I hope you enjoy them.


"Cal Ripken Jr. (the other Cal)"

What's so special about Cal Ripken Jr., you ask? Whenever I look at the framed letter and autographed photos displayed in my son's bedroom, I know.

In an era marked by spoiled, multimillionaire athletes, detachment from the average fan and, now, the scandal of steroid and drug use, Mr. Ripken was different.

When baseball needed a role model, when its fans wanted a ballplayer they could look up to, Cal Ripken Jr. stepped up to the plate and accepted the responsibility. And he continues to accept it through his work and his example. Baseball's most resilient player has become one of its greatest ambassadors.

You, Paul, have let your faith be damaged by the game's secrets and lies. But when it comes to Mr. Ripken, I, my son, and millions of others are willing to trust.

Eleven years ago, I didn't want my boy named for a baseball player. Today, I'm happy to admit I was wrong. One day, Paul, I think you'll admit you were, too.

Tim Placher is a columnist for the Daily Southtown in Chicago.

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