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.”
A family man, Cal is baseball’s Good Guy, the consummate pro who was never too busy to sign autographs for kids, even at the height of his fame. During his 21 seasons, he did much more than break Gehrig’s steak of 2,130 straight games played, which he did on Sept. 6, 1995 and went on to run the streak to 2,632.. He redefined the shortstop’s position as a Gold Glove-winning power hitter, clubbing 431 home runs (the last few as a third baseman) and 3,184 hits.
He played thousands of games without a hint of scandal or lousy attitude. Standing at the plate watching a questionable called Strike Three, Cal would glance at the umpire, blink or sigh, but then calmly head back to the dugout. He embodied John Wayne’s credo of personal responsibility: “Never complain; never explain.” Then he’d come back up a couple of innings later and whack the ball into the left field seats.
On Tuesday night, 42,000 fans in Baltimore gave a preview of what is going to happen on Sunday in Cooperstown. Accompanied by other Orioles greats like Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, legendary manager Earl Weaver and Robin Roberts, Cal received thunderous cheers and acknowledged the crowd with genuine appreciation. He talked of writing his upcoming speech, fretting about making sure he didn’t leave anyone out when thanking others for contributing to his success.
As he collected honor after honor over the years, he always credited others, especially his father, and exhibited humility – the real variety, not the false kind designed to call more attention to the honoree.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who has been hounded about whether he will be in the stands when Bonds breaks Henry Aaron’s record, has the perfect out on Sunday. He’ll undoubtedly be in Cooperstown, honoring two players who won’t need asterisks behind their records and who have been positive role models.
Barry Bonds has done some charity work himself. But he could do us all a big favor by getting it over with on Sunday, when the nation’s attention is diverted to real heroes.