The Blue Jays have the bases loaded (again!) when their batter, Alex Gonzalez, raps a clean hit to left...except it never gets through. Ripken was moving before the bat hit the ball. He is so far in the hole, it looks as if his weight will carry him into foul ground. But he picks the ball on the bounce, backhand, with his body somehow already turning, with his right hand already sweeping up to meet his glove at his hip. He is backpedaling, almost falling toward third, when he plants his big right leg, which lifts him into the air, whence he fires the ball in a white streak to second base. And the runner is out—inning over. It is the kind of play that stays in your head as a picture. At Camden Yards, no one yells. Polite applause. The fans are waiting for the next thing to happen. "Dad.... Dad!...DAD!" This is a kid on my left. He wears a T-shirt that says CHICAGO BULLS. His father turns. "Cal's gotta hit another home run! Dad! Can we get ice cream?"
This current mayor, guy named Schmoke, made a new slogan for the city: Baltimore. The City That Reads. No one knows what that's supposed to mean. But about the same time, Cal set up his own foundation and its literacy program: Reading, Runs and Ripken. Shapiro keeps everybody on the same page of the hymnal. Cal's always been willing to sing along.
Now that Blue Collar Cal's so famous across the nation, everybody's trying to pick up the tune. Would you say there's something special about this town? Hardworkin' people? It was one of those man-on-the-street ads, supposed to thump the tub for local Channel 11. They wanted to bill themselves as the Hard-Working News Team. Of course, it seemed like a small-minded play on Cal's streak—collusive, self-satisfied and small-town. That's Baltimore too.
Though he'll never talk about it, Cal remembers clearly those times when the town chorus turned against him. There was '88, that awful year when his father was fired (the O's started 0-6 under Cal Sr., then Frank Robinson came in, and they lost 15 more in a row). And there was '92, when the team and the town gave up on his little brother, Billy (Cal's favorite second baseman, but of course he can't say that, either). In fact, every time Cal's hitting went south, those hardworkin' airwaves were filled with captious comment. People said Cal ought to sit down. Take a rest. Stop acting like Superman. Stop putting his own streak ahead of the team!
It hurt him. Confused him. In '88, when Brady Anderson joined the O's, he found Cal one day leaning alone against the leftfield fence. "What's goin' on?" Brady said.
Cal just waved him away: "Not now."
Brady insisted. "No, c'mon. Tell me. What's wrong?"
Then Cal asked this near-rookie, this kid, "What does the Streak mean to you?"
What Cal couldn't figure was: How could they criticize the best thing about him? He always came to play. What was wrong with that? That's the way he was. Was there something wrong with him?
Still, he signed two contracts after that. Even in the middle of negotiations, he never made a threat to leave. That didn't have to do with Baltimore's values. It had to do with his values. He thought if you say you're willing to leave—if you declare for free agency—then you have to be willing to go. He wasn't.