And the town? Well, that's a complicated story—one that goes well beyond the Camden Yards theme park and the surrounding Inner Harbor theme park, with its rows of shoppees selling $20 T-shirts or crabs at $35 a dozen. None of that is meant for the man on the swing shift. In fact, there is no more swing shift. Crown Cork and Seal closed up its plants, like all the other big manufacturers.
The ball yard, Harborplace, the gleaming insurance and banking towers looming over the gleaming water—they were all designed (with forethought, control) to replace the blue-collar Baltimore that was crumbling like an empty row house. Or at least to distract attention: Here the rulers of the town would build the Baltimore you're supposed to see; they would stock it with family attractions—the shoppees, tall ships, an aquarium (Hey! How 'bout baseball?)...and plenty of parking, so the white people could jump into their cars and go back to the suburbs to sleep. They wanted the kind of place that Good Morning America would visit. If you build it, Joan and Charlie will come! And so they did! That worked like a charm. In fact, that's what they called Baltimore: Charm City.
But somehow that name never really stuck. See, the schools still didn't work, crime's a problem, taxes are murder. And even those new towers shining out there, beyond the centerfield fence, they're going empty. This town is literally shrinking up. Somehow, all the Disneyfication of the downtown didn't win for Baltimore the label that the rulers really wanted: big league. Now they've given up on the catchy nicknames. They've just mounted Cal up front, like a hood ornament, to symbolize what Baltimore's all about.
The truth is, Cal wasn't raised a Baltimore—nor even a true son of Aberdeen, Md., the town 33 miles up the highway where his parents still keep their house. When Cal was growing up, the Ripkens' home was baseball. Young Cal was raised an Oriole.
You have to understand what it meant. When Cal was growing up, the Orioles were the best club in the game. There were pennants: '66 (world champs) and '69, then '70 (world champs again) and '71. There were playoff teams in '73 and '74 and a pennant again in '79. These Orioles were stars on the mound: Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar. They were sluggers at the plate: Frank Robinson, Boog Powell. They were stars with the glove: Mark Belanger, Paul Blair...and for 23 years at third base, Brooks Robinson.
The great thing was not what they won but how they did it. This wasn't the richest club. As a business, it wasn't even good. The Orioles had to win pennants to draw a million fans. Any evening you could leave work at 7:15 and drive like a bandit through the neighborhood in northeast Baltimore that had as its centerpiece Memorial Stadium. Everybody had his own route through those tight streets. Everybody knew a kid who parked cars in his alley or his driveway. And for five bucks at the window, you could stroll through this comfy concrete pile and settle yourself to watch the greatest righthander to hit the league in 30 years, Palmer, mow down some visiting lesser lights. By midgame, if you had the wit and nerve, you could spot an empty seat in the second or third row...you could sit, for god's sake, a foot and a half behind the bald owner, Jerry Hoffberger, hard by the third base dugout, where it looked like Brooks was gonna dive straight into your lap for that ball. "Way to dig it out, Brooksie!" some fan would yell. Brooks would look up to see if he knew him. These were ball fans. They would hoot an outfielder out of the park if he threw some rainbow over the cutoff man's head. The Orioles were all about defense. Sometimes they made brilliant plays. But they always made the routine plays right. That was the Oriole Way.
There was actually a book. It had all the plays: where the cutoff men stood, who backed up where, all the bunt plays, the pick-off plays.... This was the codification of the Oriole Way. And this text was taught at every spring training and through the summer, in every ballpark throughout the organization. In Stockton, Knoxville and Elmira, they did everything the Oriole Way, down to the dress code (on the street), full uniform (on the field), batting practice (first the bunt...one to move the runner over...one to bring the runner in...then swing away, swing away, swing away). The Orioles couldn't afford to buy pennants. When they had a hole, they had to fill it from the farm. But when those kids came up, they were Orioles already. The only thing manager Earl Weaver had to tell them was the curfew. On the field, they knew how to make the plays right.
And that's where the old man came in. Cal Ripken Sr. was a catcher whose playing career (1957-62) arced short of the majors. Then he was, for almost 15 years, a coach and manager in the bushes, teaching the gospel to fledgling Orioles. For all the years of his famous son's life, Senior was preaching the Oriole Way. Living it, in fact, in Asheville, Rochester or some other town where his wife, Vi, would rent a house and make a home for the four children during the summer. Wherever home was, the ballpark was the Ripkens' second home. Dad would set the kids to work in the clubhouse or hit grounders to them (Dad could run a perfect infield)—100 grounders, 150, as many as they wanted—unless they started screwing around, grabbing at the ball, hotdogging throws, in which case he would pick up the ball bag and walk off. (PERFECT practice makes perfect.)
Cal Jr. didn't live in Aberdeen full-time till high school, in '75. (Senior didn't come up to the big club, as a coach, till '76.) But young Cal was already an Oriole. From the time he was able to read, the box score from Baltimore held names he knew—they'd been kids on his father's teams. (Hey! Al Bumbry went 3 for 4! Junior had shined his shoes in the Asheville clubhouse!) When Junior was drafted in '78—and made it through the system, the Oriole Way, by '81—he was just rejoining family.
And it was like family, the way the guys would go out after road games—or in Baltimore, they would babysit one another's kids, watch 'em all together in somebody's pool. Or everyone would go out to Hoffberger's house after Sunday doubleheaders: cookouts and laughter, players and ex-players, kids and wives, stadium ushers and secretaries, Weaver and the old coaches—Bamberger, Hunter, Ripken—grinning half-lit on National Bohemian beer (that was Hoffberger's brewery), saying (like they always did), "It's great to be young and an Oriole!" And it would go from just after the game to...well, when the last guest left. Even on a weekday night Cal Jr. would come off the field, and there would be Dad at the table in the locker room, holding court—Senior never liked to leave too quickly after a game. And he would take apart that game, too, for a couple of hours sometimes, and you could learn some baseball. Cal Jr. liked to hang around like Dad. And even if he stayed for two hours, he'd still see guys—Palmer, Elrod Hendricks—in the parking lot, fans around their cars. Autographs were mostly for kids. When that was over, they could talk baseball.