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Thank You, Cal, For Everything You Stood For

Published in The Baltimore Sun, July 29, 2007

Cooperstown, N.Y., sits tranquilly abreast of Lake Otsego in a place where time seems to have stopped, and a past America has been painstakingly preserved. It is small town U.S.A. before highways bypassed Main Street, chain restaurants diluted local flavor, and big-box stores full of foreign-made products choked out the mom-and-pop familiarity of the neighborhood store. It is a most fitting, bucolic locale for the National Baseball Hall of Fame – the place where the immortals of America’s game are forever honored with enshrinement.

It is the ideal setting as Baltimore’s own Cal Ripken Jr. today joins that select group of athletes who have distinguished themselves at the highest level of a sport that demands so much of the participants in its six-month marathon – a season that is as much about endurance and commitment as it is about talent and ability.

It has long been a foregone conclusion that Mr. Ripken would be there today. His achievements – the unfathomable consecutive-game streak, the offensive numbers that redefined the shortstop position, and his fielding excellence, including an often-overlooked season of only three errors – ensured his inclusion among baseball’s elite. But Mr. Ripken’s induction, while an appropriate honor for a sports hero, stands for much more. Indeed, it provides a forum in which all of us would do well to take time to reflect – not only on the state of our national pastime but also on ourselves, our communities and who we are as a people.

That is because what Cal Ripken achieved, and the grace with which he obtained those achievements, personifies a model of principles of personal discipline that transcend sport and generations. These include such timeless values as hard work, persistence, teamwork and common decency, and they are rudiments that can be applied in all walks of life and to all manner of human relations. They are embodied in the thousands of repetitions involved in taking ground balls, mastering the footwork ballet of a double play, the batting-cage swings and the personal conditioning required to maintain those practiced skills at major-league levels. And they portray a respect for both the game and the community that the team represents and to which it offers pride and hope.

It is what was called “the Oriole Way,” and it had its birth on minor-league fields where Mr. Ripken’s father, Cal Ripken Sr., taught a generation of players, which ultimately included his own sons, how to do things the right way and that there are no shortcuts to excellence. The Oriole teams that adhered to that regimen were, for more than a quarter-century, among the most successful in baseball. But it is the way that they went about it that is noteworthy: solid fundamentals in pitching and defense, complemented by timely clutch hitting. Excellence on the field, and grace and self-effacement off.

Those teams were more than sports teams. They represented how we wanted to be portrayed as a community. Hardworking, solid, reliable. Cal Ripken took that to heart and never let go of it throughout his storied career. And, in doing so, he took us all to a higher level by offering an example of what we can be and what we can achieve.

Cynics will dismiss this and focus on a game diminished by a steroid scandal, inflated salaries, diluted talent, overpriced tickets and concessions, and actions that seem to place the fans and community last among priorities. But it is precisely for those reasons that Cal Ripken’s Hall of Fame induction offers an opportunity to bathe in the magical waters of all that baseball has been and can be to all of us.

Many years ago, Lou Gehrig, the Iron Man whose consecutive game streak was eclipsed by Mr. Ripken, stood before the faithful at Yankee Stadium and a national radio audience, with his glowing career and exemplary life about to be cut short by a horrific disease, and pronounced himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. Surely Mr. Ripken will think of his own good fortune today to be the subject of such adoration.

But it is all of us who have been lucky to have been witness to what can be accomplished by dedication, fortitude and perspective. And the luckiest among us will take something from that inspiration that will improve our lives, families and communities. Because it is about more than a game. The ideals that shine in the lost-in-time streets of Cooperstown are as alive as we are willing to make them.

Thanks, Cal.

— Raymond Daniel Burke