- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

I put an old tape into the VCR yesterday morning, and Cal Ripken was 23 years old again and looking younger. His dark brown hair was soaked and matted from a liberal application of clubhouse champagne as he talked joyously about how the 1983 Baltimore Orioles had won the World Series. Ahead for Ripken and his team stretched a bright and limitless future. The Orioles would win many more championships, and the bubbly would flow in a relentless stream as far as the eye and calendar could see.
Now, in a few months, that baseball future will be over. He will enjoy other marvelous moments: the Hall of Fame in five years, possible ownership and management of a major league team, the simple pleasure of being there every day as his children grow up. But never again will he be a young man playing shortstop for the best baseball team in all creation. His first championship also was his last.
That's why Cal Ripken's decision to retire at the end of this season is sad for him and for us, because the mortality of our sports heroes reflects our own. We are all going to leave our jobs, and eventually our lives, behind. And when the athletes we admire grow old in a competitive sense, it is a terribly poignant reminder that the clock is ticking inexorably for us, too.
That's a pretty significant phrase "the athletes we admire" because there aren't many left. A better way to put it would be "the people we admire." In a time of greed and selfishness in and out of sports, it's hard to find a public figure that we can hold up to our children as an example of good behavior. Call it the Albert Belle syndrome.
When Charles Barkley said he was no role model, he was right and wrong at the same time. Right because parents and teachers should be a child's primary ones. Wrong because athletes bear tremendous influence and responsibility when it comes to setting standards.
It is here that Ripken truly has been most valuable. Numerically and competitively, he always will be defined by The Streak the incredible run of 2,632 games from 1982 to 1998 that broke baseball's supposedly most unbreakable record. There also are the two American League MVP awards, the redefinition of what physical attributes a shortstop should possess, the major league record for homers at that position and an astounding array of pretend dingers during the home run contest at the 1991 All-Star Game in Toronto.
In fact, Ripken might be baseball's best .275 lifetime hitter ever. But that's just a number. What we will and should remember longest about Cal Ripken is that, as far as we know, he was a good person.
The qualifier is necessary because we don't really know our favorite athletes and entertainers we just think we do. Who knew that O.J. Simpson, the gentle and humorous soul who flew into the seats of rental cars and mangled the language as a TV commentator, could be accused of murdering his wife and her friend? Who knew that Pete Rose, whose fire and dedication inspired a generation of young ballplayers, had a gambling addition that made him more of a Charlie Hustler than a Charlie Hustle? Who knew that lovable, benign Babe Ruth pursued women and booze as eagerly as fastballs down the middle?
But in Cal Ripken's two decades as Baltimore's favorite son, no hint of impropriety has reared its ugly head. We are given to understand that he is a good husband, a good father and a caring person who contributes part of his outrageous baseball salary toward helping people learn to read and play youth baseball. In the best possible way, he is showing that he understands how fortunate he has been and that he wants to give something back.
Are there flaws in his character of which we know not? Certainly, but why should we? He is a public figure, and in that role he has fulfilled every obligation. If he is not the most quotable or charismatic of public figures, so what? He is his own man, one whose priorities and values were shaped beautifully by his parents, the late Cal Sr. and Vi. If you're scoring at home, give them assists on the play.
So what, in the final analysis, are we to think of Ripken? From a baseball standpoint, the fans in my family always wanted him at the plate in clutch situations, and when the opposition had the bases loaded in a tight game, the same cry always arose: "Hit it to the shortstop."
Above and beyond that, however, was the warm and fuzzy feeling that we were entrusting our trust to a man who would respect and appreciate it a man whose fans we were proud to be.
I know sportswriters are supposed to be cynically impartial, but I find it impossible in the case of Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. If not quite the last American hero, he comes very close.
I've said this before, but none of us can say it too often. Thanks, Cal.

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