It's a stinkin'-hot night at the ballpark—near 100°, the air is code red—and the Orioles are playing the cellar-dwelling Blue Jays. Still, it's got to be a big night: It's Coca-Cola/Burger King Cal Ripken Fotoball Night. That is, it's the sort of ersatz event that is a staple of baseball now that payrolls are fat, attendance is slim, and the game—well, no one trusts the game to be enough. These new Orioles yield to no club in the promotional pennant race. There's Floppy Hat Night, Squeeze Bottle Night, Cooler Bag Night. There's an item called the NationsBank Orioles Batting Helmet Bank, and there's the highly prized Mid-Atlantic Milk Marketing Cal Ripken Growth Poster. They are all a stylistic match for the graphics on the scoreboard that tell you when to clap or the shlub whose bodily fluids are draining into his fake-fur Bird Suit while he dances on the dugouts for reasons known only to him.
Still, as a celebration of the Hardest-Workin' Man in Baseball, the hero of this Old-Fashioned Hardworkin' Town, the Cal Ripken Fotoball is my personal favorite, perfect in every detail. There is the F in the name—gives it klass, and it's korrect, because there's no photo on the ball. There's a line drawing of Cal's face, with a signature across the neck. The signature is of the artist who made this genuine-original line drawing from a genuine-official photo of Cal. And then there's the plastic wrapper—says it's all Made in China. I like that in a baseball. And one key word: NONPLAYABLE. In other words, don't throw or hit it, or this fotobooger will come apart.
Hours before game time, I wanted to ask Cal about his Fotoball. I wanted to ask how it feels to be the icon for baseball and Baltimore. But he's hard to catch in the locker room. He has his locker way off in the corner, where his dad used to dress as a coach. The official-and-genuine Oriole explanation is that the corner affords him room for two lockers—one extra to pile up all the stuff fans send him. But it's also unofficially helpful that there's an exit door in that corner, and anyway it makes Cal plain hard to get to. (One day early in the season I was blocked entirely by the richly misshapen and tattooed flesh of Sid Fernandez.) And if you're lucky enough to catch Cal, you're still not home free: Even local writers—guys Cal knows—find that out. "Angle your story," he might say, without looking at the writer, his eyes still on the socks in his hand. "Yeah...but what's the angle?"
So the writer must explain what he means to write. "Cal, it's just about all the second basemen you've had to play with—you know, 30 different guys to get used to."
"No," Cal says to his socks. "Doesn't do me any good to answer that."
See, these days, just a handful of games from Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive starts, he's playing writers like he always plays defense, on the balls of his feet, cutting down the angles: How is this gonna come at me? Where should I play it? Positioning (forethought, control) has always been his game. And streak or no streak, Cal still has to play the game his way—that is, correctly: He's got to click with his second baseman.
This new locker room defense is the only effect Cal permits himself to show as he surfs the hype wave into the record books. That and maybe some testiness toward umpires. Just a couple of nights before Fotoball, the second base ump missed Cal's tag on a runner, and for the next 10 minutes obscenities and spittle flew out of Ripken's mouth. (Of course, Cal did it the right way, facing home plate while he manned his position, never turning his head, so the ump wouldn't be shown up and have to toss Cal out. Ripken, being Ripken, has to throw even imprecations correctly.)
The point is, the umps, the writers, even the Streak itself, they all get in the way of the goal—always the same goal—which is to play the game just right. The umps make mistakes. The writers don't care, they want controversy. Cal doesn't like controversy. And the writers take time. Cal doesn't have time, not now. He's got his wife and kids in the big country house; he doesn't get enough time with them already. He's got fans, he gives autographs—thousands of signatures. He's got press conferences at ballparks across the country and big, scheduled media hits—The New York Times, Prime Time Live, TV Guide, the cover of SI. He's got endorsement deals, his old ones (local hot dogs and milk) and new ones: Chevy Trucks, Coca-Cola, Nike, Franklin Glove, the Adventureland theme park, and assorted memorabilia, including a bobble-head doll. (You can't establish a deathless baseball record without a bobble-head doll.) It's not easy being an icon—when it has to be done just right.
And time before a game...well, forget it. That's sacred. That's Cal's time to prepare. He's in his routine—the silence, the planning, the discussion. And he wants to hit, take batting practice, correctly: first a bunt, then a ground ball to the right side (move that runner to third), then a fly to the outfield (bring that runner home) and then swing away, swing away, swing away. He wants to take grounders—has to take grounders—but correctly: You don't grab the ball any which way and close your mitt around it; you catch the grounder with an open glove, to get your throwing hand in. You catch it in position to throw. That's all part of catching the grounder correctly. See, Cal's dad, who taught him, has these sayings—said them all a million times—like: If you want to play the game properly, you have to get ready to play.
Or there's this one: