- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2001

"And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain …"

Frank Sinatra,

"My Way," 1969

And now, too suddenly, it is upon us: Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. will not be playing baseball much longer, and true fans everywhere should feel a little tug at the heart.

After nearly two decades half his life and a good chunk of ours he has been reduced to part-time status with a mediocre Baltimore Orioles team. The manager says he will not play more than two to five games a week for the (implied if not spoken) good of the team. The owner agrees. And probably, were he to speak his mind and not his heart, so would Cal Ripken.

Baseball's Iron Man, the guy who played 2,632 consecutive games over 17 seasons, parked on the pines for two, three or four games a week?

Is it possible?

Can he really be living in his fifth decade?

Let's check the most immovable and implacable of barriers for athletes the calendar. Ripken came up to the Orioles at the end of the 1981 season, was named Rookie of the Year in '82 and then the American League's Most Valuable Player in '83 as the team won the World Series. It was Baltimore's second pennant in five years, fifth in 15, sixth in 18. This was a franchise, moreover, with the game's best record over the past 30 years. Its future looked golden, and so did Cal's.

Then something bad happened to the Orioles, meaning no more pennants over the next 17 seasons (and counting). There were and are a lot of reasons, not all of them named Peter Angelos. But always, in sunshine and in sorrow, there was Cal.

The Streak was the Biggie, of course the numerical manifestation of an incredible work ethic that enabled him to shrug off injuries, fatigue and ennui to play every game in what surely is baseball's most unbreakable standard. But more important, to many of us, was the way he played.

Ripken was not a "natural" ballplayer, whatever that means. He got where he got because of hard work, perseverance and a desire to excel. There have been two players in my lifetime of whom I have said, "If I were a major league player, that's how I would like to play." The first was Pete Rose, the second Cal Ripken.

All of us knew how hard he struggled to be a good hitter and how difficult it was for him. One season he hit .250, the next .323. The home runs ranged from 14 to 34 for a full season, the RBI from 57 to 114. His production wasn't always constant. His effort was.

When I think of Cal Ripken, I think of so many things. I think of how, whenever the other team was threatening during his heyday, the baseball fans in our family would implore the batter, "Hit it to the shortstop." I remember how, in 1983, my son and I arose at 6 a.m. to learn on "SportsCenter" that he had been voted the American League's MVP and how we woke the rest of the household with our shouting. I remember how, the following spring in Miami, he learned that it was my son's seventh birthday and gave Patrick his bat. I remember how he hit one drive after another out of SkyDome in the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby and how he went deep twice in September 1995 under the greatest pressure imaginable, on the nights when he tied and broke Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games.

And I remember his victory lap around the field at Camden Yards that second night, how the fans cried out their love and reached out to touch a ballplayer they considered one of them, never mind that $6 million salary per season.

I'm sorry to be writing all this in the past tense, because Ripken is still there among us biting his lip as he awaits the pitch in one of his oh-so-many stances, diving to knock down balls at third base, playing the role of modest, caring, team-oriented athlete as well as anyone ever has. But now he is just biding his time. I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a good game or two against the almighty Yankees this weekend. He has always risen to challenges.

So far this season, though, Ripken's batting average has stayed well below .200, and often he has appeared overmatched. No wonder. Could you do at 40 what you did at 20, 25 or 30? Certainly not, and the chances are pretty good that you're not a professional athlete performing at the highest level of your sport.

And now it is all winding down and gathering speed in its descent like a Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens fastball.

I don't know how old you are, but I know how old you were when Cal Ripken brown-haired and bushy-tailed first emerged as the Orioles' latest phenom. You were 20 years younger, and I'll bet it feels like a lot longer ago.

That's how it goes with sports and sports heroes: Their athletic mortality reminds us of our own in the game of life. We cling to them and sometimes they cling to themselves too long, hoping against hope that they can rediscover the way they were for one more game, month or season.

Brooks Robinson, the greatest Oriole ever before Ripken, hit like a spring shower and actually let balls get past him at third base in his last season and his 40th year. "I hung on way too long," he told me a few years ago. "But it's so hard to let go."

It will be hard for Ripken, too, but he is above all a realistic man. When he made his major league debut in August 1981, his teammates included Murray, DeCinces, Singleton, and Palmer; now they include Kinkade, Richard, Paronto and Roberts. This team is going nowhere, and the emphasis rightly must be on the future.

The Orioles' final home game this season will be on Sunday, Sept. 23, against (who else?) the Yankees. Mark it down as the most emotional farewell ever at Camden Yards. And all across America, baseball fans should stop and reflect about a man who personifies all that is good about the game.


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