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From Baltimore, Another Working-Class Hero

By Frank Deford
Special to The Washington Post
September 06, 1995

When Pete Rose was nigh on to breaking Ty Cobb's record, I wrote a fantasy for Sports Illustrated, wherein Rose ties the mark, but then, to honor the grand tradition of Our National Pastime, retires on the spot, leaving him bound for eternity with the great Cobb.

A couple of days later I learned that some writers had mentioned my scheme to Rose and inquired, pray, what reaction he might have to this chivalrous proposition. Quizzically, Charlie Hustle weighed the suggestion, and then, much in the manner of a head-first slide, he assayed this response:"Is Deford out of his bleeping mind?"

The short answer is no, but then, I am from Baltimore.

A certain inbred humility comes with that nativity, for early on you understand that, to the rest of the world, you were, essentially, born under a road sign, lost in the overlapping penumbra of Washington and New York. Records don't seem to go with Baltimore. Those sports heroes there who do attain the most local divinity are, precisely, not those with flash and cymbals, but, rather, those loyal stalwarts with earnest credentials, tried and true.

The noblest Oriole of all, Number Five, built his reputation largely with his glove -- which is equivalent, say, of achieving grand stature in the music world as a yodeler. But Brooksie was our yodeler, the best there was at it, and the fancy-dan big cities could keep their sluggers and fireballers. Babe Ruth might have been born in Baltimore, but his bombast was too much for such a modest community.

The most acclaimed basketball player Baltimore ever had was a blocky center, the height of a two-guard, whose self-effacing talent consisted merely of"getting the ball out."It is instructive, too, that Wes Unseld retained his Baltimore citizenship when the Bullets relocated to a Beltway elsewhere. And it is fortuitous that while both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath were brought up in proximate environs of western Pennsylvania, the quiet one came to 33rd Street, the noisy fellow to Broadway. It wouldn't have worked so well for either the other way around. Unitas's most wondrous record, pitching Colt touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games, has been apprised, statistically, as more unassailable than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, but, of course, who so much knows that it exists? Even Blaze Starr remained unappreciated outside of Baltimore until she took up with Huey Long's dotty brother in Louisiana.

Never mind. The point is that Baltimore's model heroes are those whose achievements are cumulative rather than explosive -- and absent any vainglory whatsoever. So this, naturally, brings us to that little blue-eyed pig who built his house, brick by brick, more solid than anyone else -- the eldest Ripken boy. It matters all the more that he is family, an Oriole fan before he was an Oriole player, raised just up the road in Aberdeen, the son of a lifer sergeant in the Oriole National Guard, brother of a Regular. (For the eerie sake of posterity, it is also worth musing how Calvin E. Ripken Jr. was actually born a few more miles up Route 40 at Havre de Grace, entering this world at the very mouth of the Susquehanna, a river whose headwaters 200-some miles north flow from a little village named -- yes -- Cooperstown; not even Horatio Alger, the Delphi Oracle or Bill Stern would have dared foist upon us such a fantastic rendering of a mythic voyage.)

It is, then, quite appropriate that an Oriole, a real Baltimore Oriole, would be the one to break the record for showing up, for being there, for punching the clock. for getting the job done, for staying the course, for giving a dollar's worth of work for a dollar's pay, for dependability, for reliability, for perseverance, for devotion to duty, and -- simply -- for honoring the nobility of honest labor. Simply that.

This is, by the way, also all perfectly in tune with what another hero to Baltimore jotted down just a stone's throw away from Camden Yards on another September's day, 181 years ago -- what, indeed, we are reminded of before every game played anywhere in America. The point of"The Star Spangled Banner"is not victory. Hardly. Rather, the nub of what Francis Scott Key wrote was that after all the bombs and rockets, all the stuff going on all around (just like nowadays),"our flag was still there."Simply that."Oh, say can you see?"So is Cal Ripken of Baltimore, Md., the closest thing, athletic division, to the flag flying. Simply that.

A few weeks ago, Bob Lipsyte, a columnist for the lordly Times of New York City, ventured his opinion that to honor the grand tradition of Our National Pastime, Cal Ripken should voluntarily sit out a game -- although with New York hubris, Lipsyte unashamedly proposed that Ripken do this even before he tied New York's own beloved Iron Horse.

A young New York boy of my acquaintance asked me what I thought of this wonderfully original suggestion. I replied thusly:"Is Lipsyte out of his bleeping mind?"

Frank Deford is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine and former editor of The National.

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