Steele: Outsiders connected with Streak, missed on Ripken's greatness

Millions watched the festivities at Camden Yards on Sept. 6, 1995, when the "2131" banner was unfurled on the warehouse wall and Cal Ripken Jr. lapped the field slapping hands.

To the overwhelming majority of those viewers, those outsiders, those peripheral observers, the man of the hour was an iconic figure, a symbol, a savior, a representative of their most cherished values.

They don't know what they missed. Sadly, to them, by that night, Ripken had long ago ceased to be a baseball player, an All-Star, a World Series champion, a man who changed the parameters and possibilities of the position he played.

They were casualties of The Streak, and that's a shame.

Having just arrived, two days before, in northern California to begin writing for the San Francisco Chronicle - and having just had the cable hooked up that day to allow me to see the festivities - I could easily see that outside Baltimore, Ripken's career had already been reduced to his chase of Lou Geh rig's consecutive-games record.

I had left a smart, savvy baseball town in New York, come to a smart, savvy baseball market in San Francisco and Oakland - and in both places, Rip ken was a countdown, and had been for years. The record he had built as one of the best shortstops ever, the pre-eminent one of his era, was ancient history.

So, to the rest of the world, Sept. 6, 1995, was all about work ethic, perseverance, toughness, reliability and everything that's good about America, or should have been and wasn't often enough. Inside Camden Yards, it was still about the Oriole Way, about Cal Sr., about moving from third to short de spite being too big for the position, about home runs and RBIs, and pairing up with Eddie Murray in the middle of the lineup.

And about 1983. Who outside the Baltimore area cared about 1983?

Only those of us who had migrated from the area, who had known Ripken when it was still vital to use Sr. and Jr. to distinguish him from the old man, who knew him as the latest in the then-unbroken chain of products of the system, who was next in the line of succession of stars after Brooks and Boog and Frank and Eddie, who knew he belonged to the city and the state and the franchise before everybody else co-opted him.

Yes, it gave longtime Orioles followers, or natives of the region (back, of course, when D.C. was sharing the team), some cachet; there was less dis grace in proclaiming your allegiance to the Orioles with the record they had back then because Ripken was the sole national identity the Orioles had.

But nobody really got anything else about him besides the pursuit of Gehrig. Didn't get the Most Valuable Player season of '91. Didn't get that other Streak, 0-21. Didn't get the "Why Not?" season. Didn't get the farewell to Memorial Stadium, the ecstasy of the new park - even the ecstasy of the new own er. Didn't even get the sheer relief that, in the bleakest of bleak times, at least Cal was there - every day.

All anyone got was the "every day" part.

It sold Cal Ripken short. It still does. To this day, to ask anyone outside of here why Ripken is a Hall of Famer is to hear about The Streak. About 2,632, not 431 or 3,184 or two. Career homers, hits and MVPs.

All are numbers, significant ones. None by itself - not even that one - tells the entire story.

It's not the world's fault, though; those fans weren't required to get into Baltimore's heart and soul, because the story was Baltimore's, not theirs. So why not take what could be taken from the moment? If it wasn't the full sum of Ripken's career, his effect on the game and on the town that embraced him and that he embraced back, there was more than enough to be exalted.

Six years after my arrival in Oakland, and in the final days of his playing career, Ripken and the Orioles played there for the last time. The series, co incidentally, opened on Labor Day. The Athletics made the natural and understandable connection and brought out everyday working people who had gone years, even decades, without missing work, to honor Ripken. You couldn't deny it was a cool moment and a clever tribute.

One of the honorees was a secretary at a Berkeley hospital who had last stayed home from work in 1952, eight years before Ripken was born and two years before the Orioles arrived from St. Louis. (Elena Selestre Griffing, now 81, has since run her streak to 55 years.) It was my privilege to draw that story assignment.

Griffing appreciated greatness. At the time, she was a huge Jason Giambi fan during his Athletics days, she had an autographed photo of Joe Mon tana in her office and her heart belonged to Frank Sinatra. Streaks were nice, she acknowledged - but, clearly, to her, they weren't everything.

"It wasn't like I was digging ditches," she told me. "I just have work to do. I'm not doing it to be a martyr. I just came to work."

Those words could have (and regularly did, in different forms) come out of Ripken's mouth. He got it. She got it. True Orioles fans got it.

If, on the eve of his enshrinement in Cooperstown, everybody else got it, then Ripken's legacy would truly be complete.


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