- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

This was a dandy weekend to be a sports fan in these parts. The Redskins got their men, and Cal Ripken got his 3,000th hit. Of course, the Caps got beaten again, but, hey, you can't have everything.

Over the next week or so, we're going to see about 3,000 electronic and printed tributes to Ripken, and not one of them is going to say that he's a bad guy. There must be something in his uncheckered past that isn't perfect, but more about that later.

All things considered, do you know what the best thing about Cal Ripken is?

He makes it OK to be a sports fan again without feeling guilty about it.

Roy Campanella, the great Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, once said, "You have to be a man to play this game, but you have to have a bit of little boy inside you, too." The same applies to us, the fans.

We all know our lives don't change one bit if the Redskins win the Super Bowl, the Caps win the Stanley Cup or Cal Ripken gets 3,000 hits we just pretend they do. It's fun to make believe that somehow we'll be more attractive, smarter and richer if our team or player does well. We know such thoughts are just that make-believe. But when we get up the next morning, at least we've had a few hours' relief from the cold, cruel world.

Except that sports hasn't been much relief lately. Too many players make too many millions, and too many of them show their appreciation by being too arrogant and turning up on too many police blotters. Too many owners raise ticket prices too high and reward their loyal fans by threatening to move the team if new facilities aren't constructed at public expense.

We used to be proud to identify ourselves as sports fans. Too often nowadays, such a label brings only scorn and/or pity sort of like admitting that we still smoke 2* packs a day.

Even some members of my family can't understand why I devote so much time and energy in front of the TV or at events. "Sports is silly," they say. "People get so excited about games that don't mean anything. What's the point?"

Well, dearly beloved, that's the point.

In Ripken's case, it was obvious to baseball fans from the start that he was very special. Line drives and home runs whistled from his bat. When Earl Weaver moved him to shortstop, Cal destroyed the notion that a big man (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) couldn't handle the position. And he played baseball with the quiet joy and efficiency of a man who truly venerates and loves it sort of a Pete Rose without the gambling chits.

I have an old videotape of Cal being interviewed after the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, his second season; he is speaking quietly and professionally, but you have the feeling that any minute the joy might burst out of him and fill the entire clubhouse.

That's the impression Ripken gave in 1983, in 1995 when he relegated Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record to the statistical dump heap, and on Saturday night when hit No. 3,000 dropped into center field in the Metrodome. Cal's long, brown hair has turned sparse white, there are 39 years worth of wrinkles on his face and his joy is understandably more restrained after all these subsequent seasons without another pennant. But you can tell that he's still grateful for baseball and for being allowed to be a part of it.

I don't want to give the idea, though, that Ripken is perfect. Diligent research has brought to light unconfirmed reports that he once:

• Thought about kicking the family dog after going 0-for-4 in a Little League game.

• Ignored his mother's orders to wash his hands before dinner.

• Pulled his sister's hair.

• Read a comic book inside his history book in class.

• Did a dynamite impression of Weaver arguing with umpiring nemesis Ken Kaiser (playing both roles).

• Fell asleep while former O's manager Ray Miller was trying to deliver an inspirational speech, and …

• Suggested to owner Peter Angelos that he allow his baseball people to run the team instead of his lackeys. (This would get anybody else fired, but Angelos would have better luck trying to get rid of crabcakes than Ripken in Baltimore.)

So, you see, nobody's perfect. It's just that Cal Ripken comes closer than most of us and, in so doing, makes it OK to be a sports fan again. And as I think I've said before, thanks, Cal.

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