I don’t generally think hero worship is a healthy practice, but if I had to pick my hero, it would without a doubt be Cal Ripken, Jr. The man is a baseball legend, and arguably the best shortstop to ever play the game. He’s known as the “Ironman” of baseball, treating the sport like a job and “showing up” to work for 2,632 straight games, an MLB record. He played his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles, the team I grew up loving, even though they were admittedly pretty terrible for a good decade. He even famously stayed on the field in the 1996 All Star game after breaking his nose, electing to finish playing the game before getting medical attention. Everything about Cal was pure class.
I didn’t know it at the time, watching him play at Oriole Park at Camden Yards with my dad and my brother, but these were all traits that my dad has been teaching me for 18 years now. Hard work. Dedication. Consistency. Loyalty. Courage. Cal was the embodiment of all of these traits, and a major reason why I love baseball as much as I do.
I remember going to Cooperstown, New York, the most hallowed baseball ground in America, on July 29, 2007. We were there to see Cal Ripken Jr. get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And I remember my dad, my brother and myself being three among 75,000 fans who drove or flew across the country to see their idol get the recognition he deserves as one of baseball’s greats. And I remember everyone in the crowd shouting out in unison the “O!” in the “O say can you see?” in the national anthem, an Orioles tradition. There was nothing like it in the world.
Which is why it’s strange to be going to school in a different city with different customs. I went to a Cubs game last week, and while it was a lot of fun and special in its own way — the Facebook pictures show me with a ridiculous, childlike grin on my face — it wasn’t the same. I got weird looks when I was the only one in the crowd to shout “O!” during the national anthem, and I’m sorry, but it’s just not a seventh-inning stretch without John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” playing.
I think it was specifically going to a Cubs game that did it. The team has played for over 130 years, albeit under a handful of different names in the early years, and their famous Wrigley Field has been their home ground since 1914. The Cubs are arguably the most historic team in baseball, with their own traditions and baseball culture. And while it was amazing to be a part of living history, I couldn’t help but feel utterly outnumbered and alone, like a stranger in a strange land.
I called my dad after the Cubs game because I needed to hear a friendly voice. He was asleep, so his voicemail had to suffice. I left him a message, and he emailed me the next day (because, as he put it, he didn’t want to get teary-eyed). He perfectly illustrated what fascinates me so much about baseball.
One choice paragraph from his e-mail: “Nothing can change the good times we had. All those games were really fun — I can remember probably [all of them]. I remember when you and I caught both pieces of a double header… It was a beautiful day. I remember how we used to go to Camden Yards early so Will could try and catch batting practice, and once he did! You always needed a snowcone.”
I will always have the memories of going to ball games with my family. I will always be able to watch Cal Ripken Jr.’s farewell speech or Brad Lidge pitch a perfect season and win the World Series for the Phillies. And on a stressful night, with a lot of work, I will always be able to turn on the TV and watch a game, any game, and be taken to a simpler time.
If I’m watching a game and the home plate umpire ejects somebody, I immediately think of the game that my dad took me to when I was five years old where I met the umpire and was so scared that I started kicking and screaming and crying. To be fair, he was still wearing his face mask and chest pads, and he looked like a monster. My brother never ceases to remind me of the time I freaked out when we met the ump, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As embarrassing as it was, it’s one of my favorite memories, and we’re still going to be talking and joking about it 50 years from now.
I look forward to going to Camden Yards 30 years from now with my dad and my brother, when we’re old men, and knowing that nothing has changed. I look forward to taking my kids to ball games one day and having them fall in love with their local team, be it the O’s, the Phillies, or wherever I end up finding work. And I look forward to taking them to Cooperstown, New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame, to see their idol get inducted when it’s his time, like I had the privilege of experiencing.
I guess what fascinates me so much is that no matter what’s going on in the world, in the big swing of things, you can always count on baseball. It doesn’t matter if there’s a recession or if the market’s booming; it doesn’t matter if our country’s at peace or at war; it doesn’t matter if steroids have allegedly altered the game — there will always be baseball. I think my dad said it best: “The past times were great, the new times are good, and life is moving as it should. I look forward to being an old man (someday) and being able to go to games with you guys … the grass always looks so green!”