The timing could not be better.
When he is inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame on Sunday, it will be the second time that Cal Ripken Jr. will single-handedly lift baseball back onto its pedestal as the National Pastime.
The first time the Baltimore Orioles slugger did it was in 1995, when his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s historic streak brought an end to doldrums from the disastrous 1994 season. 1994 was the year when a strike/lockout cancelled 938 games, including the World Series. Fans smoldered, many vowing never to return to the ballparks. Nonetheless, they were drawn to the sports news each day in 1995, wondering if Ripken could actually conquer the seemingly unbreakable record. With each passing day, the fans trickled back into the seats, and not just in Baltimore. Ripken gave them a reason to care again.
This time around, the sports pages are ablaze with scandal, with an NBA referee accused of betting on games and Falcons quarterback Michael Vick accused of running a vicious dog fighting ring.
As for baseball, the fans’ collective disgust is growing at the imminent spectacle of accused steroid user Barry Bonds breaking Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record of 755. At ballparks all over the country, Bonds is being vigorously booed as he grimly approaches perhaps the most hallowed record in American sports. Some fans are dressing up as syringes and others are hoisting banners saying “Cheater!” or “Juicy Juice.” With Bonds about to stink up the record book, fans are looking for something else to cheer about.
Enter Ripken. Again.
In Baltimore, they’re getting dozens of buses ready for the trip to Cooperstown, New York. Orange and black attire will dominate what is expected to be the biggest crowd in history to see Ripken, along with popular hitting star Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, enter the Hall of Fame. No slouch himself, Gwynn finished his 20 seasons with the Padres with a lifetime batting average of .338, eight batting titles and five Gold Gloves. Both men are among the very few stars to play their entire careers on one team. And like Ripken and his wife Kelly, who operate charities, Gwynn and his wife Alicia have a foundation to help underprivileged kids learn “character development — encouraging positive attitude, behavior, communication and discipline in youth.”