Readers of this space are well acquainted with my baseball roots. Growing up in Baltimore in the years shortly after the Orioles arrived from St. Louis, I was lucky to come of age just as the franchise began developing the stars who would populate the great teams of the late '60's and early '70's as well as the solid teams that followed during the next decade.
Literally looking at the diamond, the beginning and end of that line of baseball greats ran a very short distance indeed, from third base to shortstop, or from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken. In between came other stars, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and manager Earl Weaver. As I watched Cal make his acceptance speech during the Hall of Fame ceremonies yesterday and then stand on the podium flanked by every one of these men cited, all now fellow Hall of Famers, I realized my era had come to a close.
I had cut the cord with the Orioles years ago, unable to endure the damaging changes its current owner had inflicted on this once-admired franchise and because nearly three decades of living in my adopted home in Philadelphia had induced me to switch allegiances. For at least the first two decades of my absence from Baltimore I had followed the team's fortunes very closely. When the Orioles and their new icon Cal Ripken beat the Phillies in the 1983 World Series I rejoiced unabashedly.
By the end of that decade I had switched my loyalties permanently to the Phillies even as I continued to closely follow Ripken's career. There was much to admire in the man and the player. Though his Rookie of the Year and MVP awards had made him the face of the franchise, it was The Streak that made him the focus of the nation, never more so than the night he broke Gehrig's record and took that lap around Camden Yards. It wasn't a victory lap in any conventional sense; rather, it was a peoples' lap as Cal extended his hand in gratitude to fans, policemen, grounds crew and the like. It was a fitting salute from a player who always felt his ironman streak was nothing more than showing up to work every day, a tribute from one working man to the working men and women of a blue collar town. Yesterday, in his acceptance speech at the Hall, Ripken repeated his belief that he did no more or less than the "teachers and policemen, mothers and fathers who show up every day" to do their jobs.
From the mid-fifties to the last third of the first decade of the 21st century Baltimore had also changed. Where once its steel mills and shipyards had worked around the clock, its most famous hospital and university had long since become the city's largest private employer. Where once its slow pace and hot and humid summers were fitting for a locale than lay beneath the Mason-Dixon line, it had long-since ceased looking toward its southern roots.
Ripken, a local kid who grew up 35 miles northeast of Baltimore in Aberdeen, MD, bridged these eras. In playing his entire 21-year career with the Orioles and remaining in the area after he retired, Cal hadn't so much come full circle as simply stayed home and witnessed these changes. I, meanwhile, had left town, but remained in touch in no small measure by witnessing Cal's career.