COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- And so thousands of fans roamed the streets, shops and halls of this hallowed baseball hamlet yesterday, biding their time until this afternoon's opportunity to escort Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn into the Hall of Fame on a cascade of cheers.
Most made the six-hour journey from Baltimore to salute Ripken, a man whose considerable skill at rounders is more than matched by his qualities as a person. And for those from the Washington area with a lingering affection for Cal Jr., if not necessarily for Peter Angelos and his moribund Orioles, Cooperstown might never again be such sacred territory or matter so much.
For one thing, we have our own team now. For another, it's unlikely that another player will appear anytime soon with Ripken's modest, caring nature.
In this age of me-first jocks who spell "team" with a capital "I," he's a bona fide throwback to a time when professional athletes cared about their city and fans.
Like Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas before him, Cal seemed to personify Baltimore's blue-collar nature. He was a hometown boy who never really left, one with whom almost all Charm City fans could identify.
And for those of us in the D.C. area who took the Orioles to their hearts after the expansion Senators skipped town in 1971, Cal was just as much an icon. We suffered with him during his early struggles at the plate in late 1981 and early 1982, then shared his modest satisfaction at becoming the American League's Rookie of the Year in '82 and MVP in '83.
After that, things careened downhill for the O's as a team — but then came The Streak. Ripken, as we know, did not miss a game for more than 16 years in an era when torn fingernails landed lesser men on the disabled list.
And on the memorable September night in 1995 when he miraculously surpassed Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, it seemed no equal honor could await Ripken.
Perhaps the Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't mean as much to you as it does to me. Even if baseball wasn't "invented" here, which it wasn't, Cooperstown always has been the perfect setting to celebrate our national game — the one men and boys played in stadiums and cornfields across America long before football and basketball, among other sporting pursuits, stole much of our attention.
To many of my generation, there is really only one game that matters — and one shrine where we can see and savor it to the fullest.
That's why Cooperstown is special. That's why Cal Ripken is special. And that's why any player tainted by even the slightest suspicion of skullduggery doesn't belong here. Stay away, Pete Rose. Go yonder, Barry Bonds. To do honor to your sport, you must be an honorable person.
You must be like Cal Ripken, a guy who simply went out and did his job to the best of his ability every day.
That's why we honor him today — because he represents the best in us as well as the best in baseball.
True, he has more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, but those merely are numbers. What we will remember most is all those evenings when he signed autographs nonstop as midnight approached, all those times when he accepted success and failure with equanimity, all those years when he served as a magnificent role model.
For all this and so much more, he deserves our utmost respect and affection — today and during all the years to come.