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Nothing Streaky About Cal

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
September 06, 1995

BALTIMOREóBefore the balloons rose or the ovations began, long before Cal Ripken hit his instant legend of a home run in his first at-bat after officially tying Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, Earl Weaver brought Game No. 2,130 into sharp focus here Tuesday night.

To start the evening, Weaver threw out the ceremonial first pitch with Ripken as his catcher. The great ex-Orioles manager then walked to home plate, where every soul in the packed house at Oriole Park at Camden Yards could clearly see his symbolic gesture. The Li'l Genius took a pen out of his pocket, like some knot-hole-gang ragamuffin, and asked Cal to autograph the ball for him.

Ripken had to stand in public -- embarrassed, head down, unwilling to upstage his first manager -- and concede that he was now, almost beyond question, the central figure in baseball and the most enduring hero in his generation of ballplayers. As Ripken headed to the Baltimore dugout, awash in yet another tumultuous standing ovation, Weaver underlined his point: The Earl of Baltimore held up one finger, then pointed it at Ripken. He's number one.

Sometimes, the stage is set for drama, yet the performance exceeds all reasonable expectations. This was such a night. Few will forget the ovations and the curtain calls -- at least 10 before the night was done -- for Baltimore's joyful laborer -- the blue-collar, yet regal, shortstop -- who, in this town, is always simply"Cal."

Absolutely nobody, however, will forget Ripken's sixth-inning home run off the Angels' Mark Holzemer. Just one inning earlier, after the game became official, Ripken had pointed to his family in the stands and pointed to his eye. He wasn't teary, but he knew they were. After he'd been called from the dugout a third time to wave to the crowd, he put his hand over his heart and patted his chest, showing the crowd how his heart was beating. Surely, he was too full of emotion to do much hitting. In real life you can't just slug 'em whenever you want. Well, maybe Ted Williams could in the last at-bat of his career. And Ripken did this night.

Sometimes, you're so close to the forest that you overlook the largest tree. For those in this area who have had the pleasure of watching Ripken play hundreds of games, it's easy to overlook how dramatically his stature has grown -- both in baseball and in American culture. As the crowd's affection, and Ripken's performance, demonstrated again this night, Junior has become one of the people in this country -- too few of whom inhabit professional sports -- who have built lives that stand for something and ring true, year after year.

As first-base coach Al Bumbry said:"It's hard to believe what's come to pass. . . . The first time I met Cal, he was a boy. His father managed us at Asheville {N.C.}. Cal shined my shoes."

Ripken grew up dreaming that someday, if he was good enough, he might become a minor league ballplayer, like his dad. Now, in a twist of fate that is beyond his ambitions or even his still-modest sense of himself, the former clubhouse boy has become bigger than Earl Weaver. Bigger than Jim Palmer. Bigger than Frank Robinson. Bigger even than his childhood idol and adult role model -- Brooks Robinson.

Reggie Jackson may have had a candy bar named after him and Pete Rose might remain the Hit King forever, but will they be remembered, far in the future, in a light as friendly as the one shining on Ripken? Few athletes grow with time. We can now be fairly certain that Ripken will. For company in the last quarter century in baseball, Ripken now has to look to Hank Aaron and, perhaps, Nolan Ryan.

By tying Gehrig's record, Ripken has forced the sports world to re-evaluate his whole career, his character and his place in the game. The attention that others in the 1990s try to attract to themselves with pink hair and tattoos, Ripken has gotten by merit. And without seeking it. Unlike Gehrig, who cut a few corners to keep his streak alive, Ripken has set himself the higher standard of insisting that, if he wasn't healthy enough to start a game, he wouldn't maintain the streak with a token appearance.

"I read all 21 pages on Cal in the Orioles {media} guide this afternoon,"said former big league manager Jeff Torborg."I was stunned at what he's accomplished. When you put it all together, it's enormous. I had no idea of all the fielding records he'd set, the number of home runs, the consistency every year."

It isn't just Gehrig that Ripken has passed. How many people ever expected a player to hit 300 home runs as a shortstop? Someday he may have 100 more homers than anybody else who ever played the position. Who believed that a shortstop could make just three errors in an entire season? For that matter, who would have dreamed that a Gold Glove-quality shortstop would, over a 13-plus-season span, have more extra-base hits than any other player in baseball?

Just as important, Ripken has grown up before our eyes, especially this season. Grown in maturity. Grown in public bearing and private generosity. He has reinvested words like"responsibility"and"dedication"with their appropriate weight. By serving as a constant contrast, he's also made those whose performance is slipshod or whose behavior is selfish seem lightweight.

In sum, Ripken has been measured against Lou Gehrig in the scales of popular culture and has been found adequate. That's doubly incredible considering not only Gehrig's exemplary life but his legendary Yankee status and tragic death.

For some, a small sidelight on this night had a gentle poignancy. As Ripken stood in a semi-crouch behind home plate, waiting for Weaver's ceremonial pitch, he looked a great deal like another familiar Orioles figure. Calvin's posture, his gestures, his whole composed attitude of focused yet relaxed anticipation, evoked another Ripken who warmed up Orioles pitchers for decades.

Junior looked so much like an enlarged version of Senior that the year might have been 1965 or 1975 and the place, perhaps, Thomasville, Ga., or Little Rock, or any of the 15 minor league towns where the Ripken family lived the itinerant minor league life.

This was a night of pomp for Ripken. But it was not a celebration of celebrity. Like the 2,129 games that preceded it, Ripken's work this evening was a testament to the kind of strong, simple, unashamed American values that would have been familiar and self-evident to the Red Stockings of 1869.

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