- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

BALTIMORE — So now that he is gone, who will take Cal Ripken's place in baseball? Tell me, who will do what Cal Ripken did?
Who, after playing nine innings, will stand out on the field for more than an hour and sign autographs, night after night? Tell me, who will do that job?
Barry Bonds? He can hit 100 home runs, leave the game tomorrow, and no one will miss him, not even his teammates. Someone else will come along to hit home runs. Heck, they're easier for Mark McGwire to hit than singles.
Alex Rodriguez? Derek Jeter? Maybe. They have shown signs that they may consider responsibilities beyond the playing field. But are they strong enough? It takes commitment and discipline to take the time to go out there after spending hours preparing for the game and playing nine innings and thank fans by signing autographs until midnight, or until security begs you to leave.
It must take a lot, because no one else does it.
Remarkably, no one else does it on the Orioles. Ripken's teammates see him sign and sign and sign, and occasionally a handful will make a token gesture to do something for the fans, and other times they will do so at the strong urging of the ballpark. But you would think that at some point, while Ripken was out there signing autographs, some of his teammates would have joined him.
Those fans may have been lining up for Ripken's autograph after those games, but he was never going get to everyone and it's not like a fan would turn down the chance to get an autograph from Josh Towers or Brook Fordyce. Anyone in a uniform will do for most kids. They just want to have a little contact with players, all of whom are larger than life to them.
This is a long-debated issue: What's the responsibility of an entertainer to his or her fans beyond their performance? Baseball, though, is different, whether the people who make a living at it like to acknowledge that or not. It is part of the national fabric of our country. Those who profit from baseball, because of the passion that others have for the game, can't dismiss their responsibilities when that passion makes demands on them.
People don't just watch them hit or catch; they buy their jerseys, their posters and their baseball cards. They want some connection, even if it's just a name scratched on a program.
The whole autograph concept may have gotten out of hand people paying $50 to wait on line for a signature and dealers sending kids into crowds to get one autograph after another from suspicious players. But that's not what this is about. This is about bridging the widening gap which has grown to an unhealthy distance between athletes and fans.
Ripken nailed it perfectly when he described why he signs. "I've never been a collector of autographs growing up around the game of baseball, but there's something really cool about the interaction of the autograph," he said. "It's a tradition that's been around baseball. I couldn't understand it necessarily until you're asked for your autograph for the very first time. It's a pretty special experience. There's an exchange that goes on, and it really brings together the people in the stands and the action on the field into one feeling.
"The autographs, to me, was just a simple way to bridge the gap at this point in my career," Ripken said. "To say thanks."
After playing a day-night doubleheader on Friday, Ripken came out on the field after the second game and signed autographs for nearly an hour. It was the typical remarkable Ripken fan scene at least 3,000 people in the stands, some hoping for a Ripken autograph and others simply standing around to watch him sign, which you can understand. What they were watching was far more rare than a home run.
There are those who would question his motives, citing Ripken's care to protect his image. But, at this point in his career one day before he was about to play his last game do you really think signing those autographs would make a difference one way or another in the Ripken image?
"It was a good social experience," he said. "I went around and signed and talked and thoroughly had a good time. I would recommend to other players to give it a try."
I think it should be more than a recommendation. Maybe when the players union and owners get around to negotiating a new contract, they can put the Cal Ripken responsibility on the table.
Who will step forward and do what Cal Ripken did? Unless there is a clause for it in the labor agreement, probably no one.

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