Appreciating Cal

I was on my way home from the ballpark, and at a stoplight in a somewhat questionable area of Baltimore, when a man in a Chevy truck leaned over and waved.

It was Cal Ripken Jr.

Late at night, in his final season as an active player, Ripken had a secret route home, and it was the same one I took.

I waved back, smiled and drove the final few minutes home.

That was one of the hundreds of encounters I’ve had with Ripken, in formal and informal settings.

Of all the athletes I’ve covered, Ripken is the one with whom I most closely identify. Mostly, it’s because of circumstance. We’re from the same generation (he’s four years younger), and I was able to watch his entire career and saw many of his important milestones.

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Besides both us being born in August, there were a couple other strange coincidences. We were both married within a few weeks of each other in 1987, and, sadly, our fathers died several weeks apart in 1999.

After Cal Ripken Sr. died, I walked over to express my condolences, knowing that shortly afterward it would be my turn.

But, the coincidences stop there, and the admiration begins.

Ripken has managed to do something that’s rare, seamlessly changing from a ballplayer into a wildly successful business executive.

And, I’ve gotten to see it.

On Aug. 10, 1981, the strike that split baseball’s season in half ended, and the Orioles called Cal up from Rochester. Not only did the strike change the season, it delayed Ripken’s Major League debut.

His first game was on my 25th birthday, and he slipped into the game as a pinch-runner for Ken Singleton and scored the winning run in the 12th inning.

I was there on Opening Day 1982, when he hit his first home run and was warmly greeted by his father, the Orioles’ third-base coach, on the way around.

A few weeks later, I was there on May 30, 1982, when his streak started. Obviously, no one knew it, and I wasn’t aware of it until several years later.

The Orioles lost, 6-0, to the Toronto Blue Jays, and only Rick Dempsey’s single in the fifth inning prevented game No. 1 of the streak from being a no-hitter.

Ten years later, I began covering the club on a part-time basis for a variety of outlets and saw Ripken close up.

By then, everyone talked about the streak, and as he got within a few years of Lou Gehrig, the pressure mounted on him.

Initially, he seemed guarded with the media. Ripken was smart enough to know that even in the pre-Twitter age, his every word was being watched.

He was greatly admired by his teammates, opponents and managers.

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In early 1990, Ripken was struggling at the plate. By early June, his average slipped below .220. His manager, Frank Robinson, was frustrated.

From my seat near first base, I had a clear view into the third-base dugout at Memorial Stadium, and Robinson was on the top step, screaming encouragement to Ripken.

Robinson had succeeded Ripken Sr. as Orioles manager, an awful time for Cal, and an uncomfortable time for Frank, who liked his predecessor.

Frank mentored Ripken that season, and while it was one of Cal’s poorer ones, it set up his brilliant 1991 MVP year.

The tying and breaking of the streak was remarkable. Ripken said this week it seemed like yesterday to him. It doesn’t to me.

On the night the streak was broken, I sat on the other side of the press box from where I now sit, and there was legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich a few feet away. Povich, long gone now, got a Ripken foul ball. He didn’t catch it. Michael Wilbon, then of the Washington Post, caught it and presented it to the great man, who’d actually covered Gehrig.

In the press box then, and now, we don’t keep foul balls. We toss them or hand them to fans in front of us. But there was one exception. This specially marked ball went to Povich.

Of course, I remember Ripken taking the lap, but I recall something even he didn’t see. I had my binoculars on the California Angels’ bullpen, and as Cal jogged past, they saluted him as one.

After the record was his, Ripken loosened up. He was more open and accepting of it. He was fun to be around.

On a Sunday in 1998, he walked into manager Ray Miller’s office just before gametime and announced, “Tonight’s the night,” and ended the streak. The day before, a handful of reporters had asked Miller if they thought Ripken’s streak would continue.

Miller indicated that it was in Ripken’s hands.

Having seen the streak’s start, the breaking of the record and its end, there was only one thing left.

In October 2001, Ripken would play his final game. Because of the events of Sept. 11, the schedule was changed. Games were postponed in the aftermath of the attacks and added on to the schedule.

Instead of ending his career at Yankee Stadium, Ripken’s final game would now be at home.

Ripken always seemed to make the right choice. If he hadn’t voluntarily broken the streak in 1998, it would have been broken for him in the second game of the next season.

By the time Ripken retired, he took regular days off and had even spent time on the disabled list.

Since his retirement, I’ve gotten to interview him many times and always delighted in his thoughts on the game.

While he says that he doesn’t see why his record can’t be broken, it has already stood for 20 years and will stand for at least 15 more.

At 55, Ripken has become a statesman for the game, and I’ve been fortunate enough to watch it.

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