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  On Top of Everything, He's the Game's Best Hope

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
September 7, 1995

BALTIMORE — Cal Ripken is doing something far more significant than preserving a playing streak, whether or not he knows it. He's saving baseball from itself. Every time he stays late into the night after a game in his uniform to sign autographs, he proves to be the receptacle for all those virtues we thought had left baseball forever. One Cal Ripken sure isn't enough; every club needs one. To hit and field and come to work every day because he feels he's the luckiest man on the face of the earth. To talk to children and sign autographs until his hand cramps, to appear at malls and charity events and Little League games and to take a victory lap around a stadium and slap hands while soaking up the dearest, sweetest admiration of a lifetime.

Baseball needs Ripken to play every day and every night because he is baseball's hope right now, its hope to recruit a new generation that is turning elsewhere for its sporting passions, its hope to lure parents and their children to the ballpark. How special does one man have to be to cover all of baseball's sins? In a season that has so little to celebrate, baseball is luckier than it deserves to have Ripken shift our focus to an accomplishment with which every man, woman and child can identify. If Major League Baseball had a lick of sense it would have forced every team in the majors to play Wednesday afternoon so that everybody associated with the sport — particularly the players — could have settled in to savor Wednesday night.

A lot of us have turned a deaf ear to baseball; some of us have become downright hostile because we feel baseball betrayed us, what with its labor wars and players who'd throw a firecracker at a 2-year-old sooner than smile or sign an autograph. If you're older than 30 and grew up in this country with a passion for sports, chances are overwhelming your first love was baseball. Mine certainly was. Yet, so many of us turned away for good this summer after an autumn without the World Series. At least we tried to. Cal Ripken brought us back, made us tune in when after we'd vowed "no more," reduced our anger in a way Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson or Tony Gwynn could not no matter how spectacularly they perform.

Seeing Ripken talk to the children and sign every piece of paper thrust in his face reminded me of my childhood, the summer of 1969 specifically when two of my own heroes, Bill Melton and Walt "No Neck" Williams of the White Sox were invited to our Little League opener. And accepted. No limos or bodyguards or entourages or appearance fees, just them showing up in the park on a Saturday morning as promised. Melton would go on to become the AL home run champion. I still have the home movies of Melton riding in my father's white convertible Pontiac. In those days you could wait outside the ballpark in the players' parking lot (for me it was Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park) and ask Fergie Jenkins to show you the proper grip on a slider or get Wilbur Wood to teach you how to throw a knuckleball. It was, of course, a time before million dollar contracts and endorsements and fans stalking players and selling autographs. I won't suggest it was an innocent time, but it was sure better than this. And Ripken, now 35, remembers it and what a little kindness meant to a kid wearing his hero's jersey and how far a smile and a pat on the head could go. I remember once leaning over into the Red Sox dugout, maybe it was '75, and having Carlton Fisk playfully smack my face with his glove and taking the time to talk to a bunch of us when surely he had something better to do.

These past few weeks have been a long, wonderful, teary-eyed flashback and Cal Ripken's been the only reason.

Before Wednesday night's game, my friend Larry called and said he, too, was coming to Camden Yards. Larry's a 40-year-old New York lawyer and a Mets fan, which is to say he's, well, irreverent. He was coming close to swearing off baseball, too. "The AstroTurf drove me away some, the DH drove me further away, agents becoming more important than the players drove me further away, four-hour games and no strike zone drove me even further away. Well, then the strike. . . . But I'd stand in the rain to see Cal Ripken." I don't know that I'd heard Larry speak about anybody that admiringly, but there he was gushing on and on. "He never complained or back-stabbed a teammate. He doesn't need some stupid nickname like SuperCal. If you have a son or a daughter, he's the one guy in professional sports who exemplifies what a ballplayer ought to be. Conclusively. He actually is what we thought those old ballplayers were."

It's not about baseball for me, how many more consecutive games he plays or the number of home runs he hits. He's so much more important than stats. If what you're holding dear to you after this experience is all over is 2,131 or some number, you will have missed the man's most significant contribution to baseball: With the game he loves in trouble, Cal Ripken stepped up and accepted a challenge no man should have to carry.

And he did it by being dignified, gracious and respectful. Three weeks ago in tribute, people called Mickey Mantle the last of his kind. One of a kind, okay. But not the last of a kind.

I must admit, I've been afraid to come to the ballpark during the Calstreak, afraid I'd see the banners unfurling on the warehouse behind right field and get all warm and fuzzy, afraid that I might get caught up in this whole Cal Ripken thing and want to come to the park like I used to, 20 to 25 times a year, early enough to see batting practice every time. Do you dare fall in love with baseball all over again, knowing the disgust that waits at the end of the next labor agreement? I came to Camden Yards Wednesday night to celebrate Ripken but keep baseball at arm's distance. But he hit the home run, and he took that victory lap, and he made that speech at the end, and before I knew it, I was having so much fun again, having succumbed to the power of a man whose primary seduction is plain old wonderful reliability.

© Copyright 1995 Washington Post Company

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