“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.” -Terrence Mann, Field of Dreams
A neighbor friend of mine had what we might refer to today as a “hyper-active” child. He was obstinate, defiant, and prone to tossing fits. His worst outbursts usually came at the dinner table – he hated vegetables. Sure, what kid doesn’t hate vegetables, but not every kid would take them in hand and throws them. You can discipline a child, but after a few years without any improvements or breakthroughs, you could understand a mother’s surrender.
He had one passion, the passion that once-upon-a-time was shared by every small boy in America. He loved the game of baseball. This concept may be foreign to some of you, so let me explain. A generation ago, maybe even two, we were not quite the “enlightened” society we are quickly becoming. There were no support groups and no Doctor Spock’s Baby Book to teach parents how to be parents. As a result, most father’s failed to recognize the importance of spending quality time with their kids. They spent an average of twenty minutes a week playing with their sons – twenty minutes of baseball. So for many of us who are now entering their mid-thirties, and some raising sons of their own, baseball represented something more than just a game or a competition. It represented, in a very real and quantifiable way, the bond between father and son. In an age where a father and son were not supposed to have emotions, baseball became a comfortable way to say “I love you, son.” and “I love you, too, dad.” Today, we as a society are better parents and better families – and the willing sacrificial lamb has been our game of baseball.
For my father and I, it was Brooks Robinson. I couldn’t get enough autographs or baseball cards, or newspaper clippings. We went to games at Memorial Stadium and witnessed some of the greatest moments in Baltimore Orioles history together. For us, that old ballpark was more “home” than the house we lived in. And we shared it with thousands upon thousands of fathers and sons across the country. He was an athlete, but moreso, he was someone my father could point at and say to me, “There son, is one hell of a guy.”
I remember the day I had dinner with my neighbors and the anticipation for another fist of thrown stringbeans hung in the air like a fog. “Eat your beans,” she said. “NO!” And then I saw something that might sound corny and may even sound funny, but represented exactly what Cal Ripken Jr meant to Baltimore, to the game of baseball, and to us, as a people. “Cal Ripken eats his vegetables.” Without further protest, that little brat ate them. It was a monumental victory for motherhood that is not likely to appear in any almanac or lexicon.
Cal Ripken eats his vegetables.
1994 was the year we almost lost Major League Baseball. There was a strike that cancelled the season. A cancellation traditionally reserved for moments of great national tragedy from the outbreak of war to the death of a president, there was no World Series. Nike flooded television with commercials featuring a lone fan in a ballpark shouting jeers and critiques at a lonely groundskeeper tending to the empty field. “You call that a sprinkler?! C’mon! My grandmother can mow better than that!” Fade to black with the words: “Play Ball. Please.” In the spring of the following year, they did exactly that. The season began and baseball resumed. But they were missing an important key element: the fans. Montreal held a game for a mere 11,000 fans in a stadium that could seat six times that number. Players said if felt like they were playing in a funeral home.
The players were more accurate than they may have realized. Fans were angry and injured by the strike, and were not coming back to the game. They no longer trusted it. A record seven franchises prepared to file for bankruptcy after leveraging huge loans in order to pay their players. Desperate for an answer, it would come in the form of a marginally above average short-stop playing on a team whose fall from grace made the mythical deafeat of the Greek Titans look insignificant.
It was a record so untouchable, that they erected a monument to it. Yankee Stadium honored it with the word, “…a record which shall stand for all time.” Dying slowly of a strange and unrecognized disease that would one day bear his name, Yankee Lou Gherig’s legacy is one that needs no reminder. Rent “Pride of the Yankees” if you need a refresher. Two thousand one hundred and thirty games without an injury, ironically a feat performed by a man who could barely remain conscious for more than 4 hours at a time. He would be immortalized by his own words:
“Today, I consider myself, the luckest man on the face of the earth.”
A man who was undeniably dying right before the eyes of a nation, and he felt lucky. Some things, I will never be able to understand; only admire.
Cal Ripken would take the nation on a roller coaster ride for two thousand six hundred and thirty two games. For over a decade he never took a sick day, and never called out from work – something very few people can claim to have accomplished. He did all of that in the face of a free agent market, by staying with the team he grew up watching from his family home in Aberdeen, Maryland. He had the opportunity to play on any team he wanted during the peak of his career. He could have played for teams where winning the world series was virtually assured on any given day. He could have gone for the big money but instead, he chose to stay close to home and give back to his local community. It was something his father had taught him, and at every opportunity for personal spotlight, he would humbly step aside and give credit to his father, who knew no other way to say “I love you, son.” than to play catch with his boys.
After “The Streak” ended, we laid Cal Ripken Sr to rest, and Memorial Stadium, silent for years, was torn down. The last page comes when the Orioles wrap up the regular season in New York, the stage where Lou Gherig made took his own final bow and faded into American History. Cal Ripken never left Baltimore, but will still close his career in New York. But not in The House that Ruth Built, but in a small town whose only true claim to fame is boasting the birthplace of Our National Pasttime. It was here that it all began and like a crusade to a Holy Mecca, fathers and sons assemble every year to watch a few more of their heroes take their place atop Mount Olympus.
I’ll meet you in Cooperstown, Dad.
Just as soon as I finish my vegetables.