- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

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It’s possible, of course, to measure brand-new Hall of Famer Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. strictly by the numbers. Numbers like …

Two American League MVP awards and one rookie of the year award. Or 431 home runs and 3,184 hits. Or three errors in 161 games in 1990, a surreal symbol of defensive excellence.

And most of all, those 2,632 consecutive games played over 17 seasons that earned him the enduring if hardly euphonious title of “Iron Man.”

But it also is possible, and preferable, to view him through a different prism, one involving humanity rather than stats.

It is late February 1984, and Ripken has reported early to spring training with the reigning World Series champion Baltimore Orioles. After the obligatory interviews, a man approaches and asks Cal whether he would pose for a picture with his young son.

Ripken graciously agrees. While numerous photos are being snapped, he learns it is the lad’s seventh birthday. Finally, with the film exhausted, Ripken shakes hands with man and boy and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Ripken,” the kid says. “You forgot your bat.”

Ripken turns and smiles slyly. “Oh, that’s your bat now, Patrick,” he says. “Happy birthday.” Then the 23-year-old baseball star hops over a chain link fence and is gone.

Patrick has never forgotten that. Neither have I, because you don’t forget it when memorable moments happen to your children.

If you’re an Orioles fan or merely a longtime baseball fan, you might cherish a similar memory. Maybe you and yours collected a prize Ripken autograph as he signed, signed and signed some more after a midsummer’s night’s game at Camden Yards as the hands on the ballpark clock crept toward midnight. Maybe your kids guzzled milk nonstop or stayed in school and studied hard because that’s what Cal told them to do on TV.

Or maybe when an Orioles pitcher was in a tight spot with two out in the ninth inning of a close game you yowled, as our family did, “Hit it to the shortstop!” And if the batter obliged, Ripken would make his signature sidearm sling to first base, and all would be momentarily merry with the O’s world.

Other players have hit for higher averages, slugged more home runs and played defense with more of a flair than Ripken, but nobody ever played the game harder and more purposefully. Think of the young Pete Rose, whose fervor and rugged charm endeared him to millions before he came to epitomize the worst, instead of the best, in baseball.

Think of a Babe Ruth who never learned to chase women, a Ty Cobb who never learned to abuse people of a different skin color, a Mark McGwire who never learned to ingest steroids.

This is not to suggest Ripken was or is perfect. He had his own intense pregame agenda that could not be interrupted. He stayed at different hotels than his teammates on the road to avoid unwanted interruptions. His offensive statistics often fluctuated wildly from year to year; some felt he hurt the Orioles by his insistence on playing every game every year. And in a team sport, he never led the O’s to a pennant after his sophomore season.

The thing is, though, he seemed perfect — and in a profession populated by too many louts and boors, that was enough. On a slow night in the sports department, somebody might say, “We need a big story — maybe we’ll find out that Cal is a wife-beater.” Yeah, right.

Many have written that Ripken was a throwback to the days when star ballplayers earned $20,000 a season and had to hustle every minute for fear of being replaced by somebody younger and cheaper. But that’s not exactly true, because no baseball era has been blessed by an overabundance of Ripkens.

Eddie Murray, Ripken’s partner in sluggery for so many years, said at his own Hall of Fame induction in 2003 that he acted the way he did toward people — meaning aloofly and sometimes nastily — because he needed to do so to succeed. His good friend Cal Jr. managed to get the job done while being unfailingly courteous to and respectful of others.

When Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson was at the top of his self-serving fame in the late 1970s, it was observed that New Yorkers named candy bars and Baltimoreans named children after sports icons. The Oriole in question at the time was Brooks Robinson, the nonpareil third baseman, but Ripken enjoys a similar exalted status among Orioles fans everywhere.

During yesterday’s press conference, with wife Kelly and children Rachel and Ryan alongside, Ripken described his election as “a glorious day … a wonderful moment.”

Yes, and for us, too.

On the emotionally sunny afternoon of July 29 in Cooperstown — the picturesque upstate New York hamlet where baseball wasn’t invented but perhaps should have been — Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. will be inducted as a Hall of Famer. The ceremony well might attract the largest gathering in the shrine’s history, but in one sense it will be strictly superfluous.

When it comes to humanity, humility and sheer class, he has been one for a long, long time.

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