Sunday, July 29, 2007

For the Birds #8

Today, Cal Ripken was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I went to the game and watched the Orioles lose 10-6 to the Yankees and stayed after to watch Ripken's speech at the stadium. A number of Yankee fans stayed to hear Cal as well.

I wanted to be at the Yard today because of the way it felt during those three days in September in 1995 when he broke the record. I needed to relive that experience in person today against the Yankees. There was a moment Saturday night when I looked out the window at my car and I thought about getting in it and driving to Cooperstown. Baseball is sacred to me.

He embodied the Oriole Way and followed in the footsteps of the Robinsons, Palmer, Weaver and Murray. His father taught him how to play the game from the inside out, all aspects of it. Cal was a perfectionist, always adjusting his swing, willing to do anything to help his team win. He had great balance and footwork, the results of playing soccer and basketball.

Mostly, he is like us. He wanted to do the best he could at all times and make the most of himself. He is a regular guy who likes to mow the grass. "The secret of life is life," he said in his speech, referring to his children. He gave us 2632 consecutive games of excellence, his way. He played for twenty-one years and revolutionized the position of shortstop. The game desperately needed him in 1995, after a bitter, year-long work stoppage, and it needs him now to help us forget that these years will carry an asterisk forever.

He wasn't just showing up to play and let's forget the 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. If you love the game of baseball, there were at least five things he did that went unnoticed in the box score every day. Maybe he took the collar but he hit behind a runner or sacrificed him over and that helped win a game. Maybe he broke up a double play to keep an inning alive or he stopped a ball from rolling into left field to save a run. He set the defense at short--the most difficult position to field and with the most decisions to make on any given play. I remember him throwing runners out from his knees at third.

I didn't miss a day of work for five years while living in New York because I wanted to keep the streak alive in my own way. I signed on to my computer at work with "ripken" as my password. It was the mid-nineties and I could listen to Oriole games on the internet. I made it up to Yankee Stadium many times to see the Orioles play and to watch my favorite player. I looked forward to the start of every baseball season because of Cal and the Orioles. On the day after he broke the streak, he was down by the harbor after the parade. He turned in my direction and I shook his hand. "Thank you," I said.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


I attended the game that Ripken tied Gehrig's streak in 1995 on a lark. I was living in NYC and my boss knew I was an O's fan. He had a business contact in Baltimore who asked him to pick a game from the firm's season tickets. He figured the game that Ripken broke the streak would be too difficult so he went for the game before that one: 2130. No one at the firm had realized that this game was important. Their offices were located in the warehouse that defines the space beyond the right field wall. My boss had four tickets and I invited my Dad to attend. Driving down from New York, I stopped in the rest areas and checked my bags to ensure that the tickets were still there. I remember walking into the ballpark and feeling a playoff-like atmosphere of hushed anticipation. Our seats were in the club level behind home plate. Flashbulbs rippled around the park. When the game was official, fireworks exploded. Hank Aaron and David Robinson were there, and a host of others. The Orioles won the game handily against the Angels and Cal had tied the streak. He hit a home run to show that he could do more than just show up. It was one of the greatest nights of my life.

Tonight is the eve of his induction into the Hall of Fame. I watched him play for most of his career and remember some amazing feats in the early years like the time he threw out a runner at home with a strike from center field at the cavernous Tiger Stadium. He knew how to play the game better than the veterans from the moment he arrived. Caught in a rundown, I saw him duck under a tag and safely reach base as the fielder lost concentration. He was a new breed of shortstop, tall and rangy, not an acrobat like Guillen or Ozzie Smith, and he made difficult plays look effortless. He acted like a coach on the field, setting defenses, and positioning those around him. There did not exist an aspect of the game that he hadn't mastered, including the bunt sacrifice and hitting behind the runner. He didn't take any shortcuts to the Hall of Fame and he carried himself with class during his entire career. He drank alot of milk growing up. If he went 0-4 at the plate, he would have done at least three things to help the team win in the field that went unnoticed in the box score. He was the Captain. He was from my home town. He played for my team: The Baltimore Orioles.
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