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Looking for the next Cal Ripken

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 22, 2001

I am no George Will when it comes to baseball. I mean the man proposed to his wife Mari at a ballpark. He probably knows every Cubs player in the history of the team. But I do follow the game somewhat, just because it is the American thing to do and it is slow enough that I can actually figure out what is going on before the instant replay comes on the screen.

Cal tips his hat in tribute to the fans during his last game on October 6
Cal tips his hat in tribute to the fans during his last game on October 6

So I noted with interest that Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles retired at the end of the regular season this year. In fact, if you lived in the Washington-Baltimore area, you would have had to have been comatose or in an even worse condition not to have noticed his retirement. It was talked about for months and, in the weeks leading up to the end of the season, we were treated to a running play by play of his every tip of the hat. I was struck by how often the newspaper headlines and refrains of the sports broadcasters commonly used this phrase about Ripken: "We'll never see another like him."

Then we would hear what was special about Ripken. He played for the same team for 21 years. Now granted that is hard to do with free agency. But then the rest of what was said about Ripken spoke about his character. He was honest as old George Washington. He never cheated by calling in sick as do many other players. That, of course, enabled him to play in 2,632 consecutive games. Ripken, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not believe the press releases about himself. He was never puffed up. He would often stay for hours just to be able to sign autographs for every little kid whose parents were also waiting in line to see him.

He was certainly adequately compensated but considering the draw he was for Baltimore, he never demanded the kind of money that has almost bankrupted some of the other teams. He was married to one woman and has a nice family. He was not above walking his son to school in the morning when he was home.

Ripken's father was also an Oriole. Cal really looked up to his father, unlike some other players whose stories trashing their parents make good tabloid copy. Indeed he seems to have been a model son, never getting into any significant trouble. Many sports figures today are involved in booze or drug or sex scandals. Not Ripken. We've never heard about so much as a parking ticket when it comes to him. Ripken has given back to his hometown and Maryland too, perhaps contributing more than he has ever received in return. He is truly a remarkable citizen and he now wants to devote himself to a baseball school for young people.

So when we say there will never be another Cal Ripken, what is it we are saying? Outside of playing for a single team for an entire career, which under current rules may be next to impossible, why does Cal Ripken represent a by-gone era? Are we saying that there just won't be another player who will try to play in that many consecutive games? Are there no players left who will always refrain from ripping off their employer?

Ripken sits in the dugout with his children Rachel and Ryan after the last game of his career on October 6
Ripken sits in the dugout with his children Rachel and Ryan after the last game of his career on October 6

Are we saying that there are no players left in baseball with Ripken's degree of humility? Are there no players who care enough about the fans, who, after all, are the ones paying the salaries of the players? Are there no players who will hang around after the game until the stadium lights go out? Are we saying that scandals and cheating are the norm and we should just accept that? Are we saying that it is passé for a player to have a decent family and to be a model citizen? Or perhaps what we are saying is that we might find some of these qualities in a player here and there, but certainly not all of these qualities in one man.

It seems to me that rather than accepting the notion that there will never be another "iron man" we ought to instead say to the next generation: "Here was a model ballplayer. He represented the ideal. He wasn't perfect, of course. But his virtues far outweighed his vices. This is how he played the game. This is how he lived his life when he was a ball player. There was never a hint of scandal connected with him. He was not only a good family man but he was interested in and active in his community. Now, Little Leaguers, this is who we want you to emulate if you are blessed enough to go on to professional baseball. We want you to aspire to be the next Cal Ripken. Maybe even a little better than Cal."

Because unless we are willing to say that we are really saying to ourselves that we have devalued the culture so much that there will never be anybody like him anymore. If we cannot say that then we are accepting as the norm all the scandals connected with sports. We have accepted that no one has the discipline to perform what Cal performed. We are admitting that all these virtues are a thing of the past.

True, we may never see another Ripken do exactly what Ripken did. But if we want to turn this culture around (and a result of the events after September 11th is that we have some hope that this could happen) then let's not look at Cal as a remnant of the past. Let's look at him as our prototype for the future.

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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