As Barry Bonds stalks Hank Aaron all summer, like Rambo on Bambi's trail, Ripken is positioned to steal the stage: the accidental antidote, the hero by happenstance. In '95, after the sewage spill of a canceled World Series, baseball needed a stench-free symbol of dependability, a hometown boy who understood responsibility and an adult who grasped that players simply were custodians of a game owned by its fans.
The sport got all those things, as the Orioles shortstop broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. Now history is seeking him out again. The steroid-soaked stage is set. Baseball's need for a man with a simple sense of honor is profoundly obvious. Cue Cal. Now we realize that all those years when it never crossed Cal's mind to skip even a single game, something else never crossed his mind either -- cheating. Now, his 431 home runs look larger as the totals of others seem smaller. And we know why Cal never hit a ball 475 feet in his life. "I don't think my numbers are deflated because some other numbers may be inflated," Ripken told me last week.
Just as Mark McGwire brought more unwelcome headlines to the sport yesterday -- by receiving a dismal 23.5 percent of the Hall vote -- Ripken's election immediately helped the cleanup process. There to aid him was Tony Gwynn, the eight-time batting champ who led the league in smiles for 20 straight years.
I'm such a baseball freak, although I abandoned the sport after 1994, when the season was canceled, no World Series played, and I had quite a few tickets that were never used in my possession. I had Dodger season tickets for a number of years from the mid 1980's until 1994. I briefly broke out of my boycott in 1998-2000 when I purchased a mini plan with a friend, but stopped after 2000. A diehard, born into the blue of Chavez Ravine, circa Brooklyn, I also followed the San Diego Padres because I lived there during the late 1970's to early 1980's, and witnessed that fabulous team that went to the World Series in 1984. Kudos to Tony Gwynn, one of the most dedicated Padres players I have ever seen.
Now, on to Cal .. the Iron Man! I remember vividly the day he broke the record, and on ESPN, no less, when he took his run around the stadium to acknowledge the fans, the most famous "silence" in the broadcast booth occurred. I recall it was lengthy ... especially by television standards. I teared up, for sure.
Congrats, Cal, for making it on the first ballot, and clearing the top three!