Schmuck: A life in the spotlight

The Schmuck Stops Here

It must have been terribly frustrating. Cal Ripken Jr. spent his entire Hall of Fame career trying to convey something that was so basic we all just assumed there had to be more to it.

Call it the Ripken Way.

Call it whatever you want.

It was never that complicated.

Cal was never that complicated.

He came.

He practiced.

He played.

Every game for something like 16 years.

When he tried to explain himself -- to defend his famous streak -- it was always the same. It was just a byproduct of his upbringing. It was an obligation to report for work every day, whether you carried a lunch pail or a Louisville Slugger. It was the way Dad taught him and Bill and a lot of other young Orioles to play. He developed his own clichés, but there is a reason some expressions become cliches -- because they are so true there is no need to find new ways to say them.

It had to be frustrating, because each small truth was dissected thousands of times by hundreds of people who had no idea what it was like to be Cal Ripken Jr., but still felt the need to form an opinion.

We live in a cynical world. We questioned his motives as the streak turned into The Streak. We debated whether his seeming obsession with perfect attendance was helping the Orioles or hurting them. We wondered whether the man with the perennial milk mustache was really so perfect after all.

That's the way it is with heroes, but this one was the whole package. He was Brooks with a Maryland birth certificate, a player so available -- so connected -- that virtually every Orioles fan in the region has some kind of first-hand Cal memory.

Tens of thousands of them will make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., this week to show their public affection one more time and to feel the love in return.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that is certainly true in this case, because it has been a long time since anyone asked if Ripken was too good to be true.

The answer came not on that September night when he took his famous victory lap around Camden Yards -- though that would have been answer enough -- but in the days and months leading up to it, when he lifted the weight of a broken baseball world onto his shoulders and carried it back to its rightful place in American society.

Somebody had to step forward after Major League Baseball nearly self-destructed in 1994. Somebody had to reach out to a generation of alienated fans still smarting from the first World Series cancellation in nearly a century. Somebody had to convince us that baseball still mattered.

Ripken was the obvious choice for all the obvious reasons, but the reason he succeeded had less to do with his squeaky-clean image and his pursuit of Lou Gehrig than it did with his characteristically basic approach to the problem.

He reached out to the fans one at a time.

Night after night, he stood at the railing near the Orioles dugout and signed autographs until the stadium lights dimmed and the ushers begged to go home. He won the fans back both at home and away with a signature, a handshake, a kind word. By the time 2,131 rolled around, he had become a national symbol of baseball's rebirth.

"I forever will be personally grateful to him for what he did in 1995," baseball commissioner Bud Selig told The Sun at the time of Ripken's retirement announcement in 2001. "It was a very difficult time."

Not that No. 2,131 was some kind of anticlimax. Gehrig's record was supposed to be unassailable. It says so right on his plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. It was supposed to stand forever -- until the kid from Aberdeen turned forever into 56 years and then tacked on an additional 501 straight games to put the new record out of sight.

He didn't get into the game to chase anybody, unless it was Cal Sr., who -- in between minor league road trips -- taught his kids there was a right way and a wrong way to do everything. The right way involved not just practice and preparation, but also perfect practice and total preparation. The wrong way wasn't an option.

Those kids like to tell the story of the day Cal Sr. was working in his yard and suffered a large gash on his forehead. Instead of stopping to clean the wound, he wrapped a bandanna around his head and went right on working until the job was done. And people wonder why Cal Jr. didn't think a bruise was excuse enough to take a day off.

There came a point in The Streak when it took on a life of its own, when even Ripken could no longer deny its importance. There also came a point when the simple act of showing up for work each day actually became controversial, though you never would have known that Sept. 6, 1995.

Ripken's joyous lap around the stadium that record-breaking night cemented the bond he had formed with the fans in a way that still resonates nearly six years after his retirement. Hall of Fame officials expect a record crowd for next Sunday's induction ceremony.

Orioles fans embraced Ripken the day he arrived at Memorial Stadium and have never let go. It is a love affair that Ripken has never taken for granted.

"I guess there's such a fever in Baltimore," Ripken said recently. "You really understand the importance of baseball in all our lives. I think the connection was inherent. It was always there."

Don't be surprised if you hear some things during his acceptance speech that you've heard before. It's not as if Ripken has reconsidered anything since he hung up his well-worn spikes. He's still teaching baseball the same way Cal Ripken Sr. taught it 40 years ago. He's still the same guy who made the Iron Horse hear footsteps, so he's probably going to stay on message.

Of course, they would be preparing to mount his plaque in Cooperstown even if he had not broken Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record. Ripken redefined the shortstop position and put up the kind of career numbers that guarantee induction.

He set the all-time record for home runs by a shortstop and piled up 3,184 hits during a 21-year career that included two Most Valuable Player Awards, 18 All-Star Game appearances and a World Series ring in 1983. He also won two Gold Gloves and set several fielding records as the prototype for a new generation of big-swinging, slick-fielding shortstops.

Indeed, he would have waltzed into the Hall on the first ballot regardless, but it was The Streak that made him one of the top vote-getters of all time, and it was The Streak that placed him on a pedestal as the most durable player in the history of the sport.

It also has made him an enduring symbol of better times to the legions of disaffected Orioles fans who have lost faith in the franchise over the past decade, which is a curious thing, because Ripken never got back to the World Series after catching the final out of the 1983 Series.

Twelve years after he saved baseball from itself, local fans dream of his coming back to save the Orioles, who continue to languish under the ownership of Peter Angelos.

Ripken has been content to oversee his minor league and youth baseball operation, but he has made it clear he would love the opportunity to shape a major league franchise.

Given that opportunity, he would probably tell you that it isn't that complicated. Never was.

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