As Barry Bonds stalks Henry Aaron, as steroid suspicions hangs like a storm cloud over Major League Baseball, as talk of gambling and game-fixing create a fog through the National Basketball Association, and as Michael Vick's indictment creates outrage across the country, I look for solace. And I think I found it.
Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn are set to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY tomorrow, July 29, 2007. Ripken is most known for playing 2,632 games, while Gwynn can be seen as one of the best hitters of the modern era. Reading about these players creates a nostalgia for me, as I remember going to see Ripken play at Camden Yards when I was six or seven years old. Nostalgia grips me as I hear the tales of Gwynn's ability that my dad tells me, as he saw Gwynn play in San Diego at the beginning of his career. So hear it is, my views of both of these soon to be Hall of Famers.
Cal Ripken, Jr. is probably my favorite player of all-time. I grew up in the '90s. I grew up around Baltimore. Can you tell me five kids who grew up in the '90s around Baltimore that did not like Ripken? I have trouble chronicling all the games I saw him play in, but I tell you this: I have not been to an Orioles game since he retired. Wow, has it really been that long? I remember going to see him play twice in 2001, his farewell year. One time against the Angels, which I went hoarse during from yelling so much, and one time against the Devil Rays, which he did not play in so I was crestfallen the entire game.
My first Cal Ripken experience was probably in 1996, 1997 or 1998. We went to see the Orioles play the Blue Jays in Baltimore, a game which I barely remember, aside from B.J. Surhoff hitting a home run into the right field flag court. That being the first home run I had seen in real life immediately thrust Surhoff into high regard in my book, a position he still occupies. Also, at that game, I learned my first cuss word: sucks. The only other game I vividly remember attending was against the White Sox, probably in 1998 or 1999. The White Sox boasted a powerful lineup with Frank Thomas and Harold Baines, and we had seats on the first base line. Other than that, I can barely remember the game. All I know is that I got to see Cal play.
My parents were both supportive of me liking Cal. My mom tried to get tickets to Orioles games from her work whenever she could. My mom got me Cal Ripken baseball cards whenever she could. One of my aunts got me a copy of his book, The Only Way I Know, which I have read countless times.
My one regret of Ripken's career is not watching his last game in its entirety. I was young, nine years old, and it was a nice day so I wanted to be outside. My mom and dad watched the entire game, my dad coming out to play with me on commercial breaks, and they called me in whenever Cal was up to bat. My lasting memory is the number eight that was mowed into the outfield grass and Cal's final at bat, flying out deep in the outfield.
However, even though he was retired, I was not done with Ripken. I tried to gobble up any Cal merchandise I saw.
Later, in 2004, I had my ultimate dream come true: I got to meet Cal and get his autograph. It was August 18, 2004, and it was a warm humid day. One of my very good friends was playing in the Cal Ripken World Series on the local team that represented Harford County. His mom came by to drop off an all-day pass so we could go watch, and she told me to bring a few baseballs and maybe Cal would be there to sign them. So around mid-afternoon, my dad and I decided to make the twenty minute drive up the road to Ripken Stadium (this was the last year the Cal Ripken World Series was held in Ripken stadium. The following year they moved it to the smaller, surrounding stadiums). We arrived probably around 3:00 or 3:30 as a team from Little Rock, Arkansas, sponsored by Torii Hunter, was about to play a team from New Jersey. My dad and I watched the game for a little bit, before deciding to go home and regroup before coming back that night to watch my friend's team play.
That night we came back, baseballs still in my pocket, hoping to see some good baseball and maybe meet Cal. My friend's team was overmatched. They only had to beat out teams from our county, while the other teams that came had to beat out entire regions. I think the local team has only one once or twice against the strong national competition. So I could feel that it was going to be a long night.
About halfway through the game, my dad mentioned to me that it looked like there was a line of people standing up on the concourse. I decided to go check it out, and I did not return to my seat for the entire game. I was going to meet Cal Ripken! Or at least I hoped. My anticipation mounted as I stood in line. As I was about the sixth or seventh person in line, a member of Cal's security detail said that Cal would only sign until ten o'clock. The clock read 9:57. As my excitement and anxiety mounted, I realized something: I was wearing a Jim Thome Phillies shirt and a Phillies hat. Major oops. I hoped that Cal wouldn't mind. At 9:59, I was the third person in line. Then, at 10:00 they turned the clock off on the scoreboard. I had no clue what time it was, but all I knew is that I was the second person in line.
When my turn finally came to go meet Cal, I couldn't walk. I couldn't talk. My legs were jelly. I was so in awe, that it had to be the most awe inspiring moment of my life. I forget everything Cal said to me. I forget everything I said to Cal. All I know is that he shook my hand and then signed my two baseballs in blue Sharpie. I was on air. Fortunately, my friend's dad had his camera, so he snapped a quick picture for me and later gave me multiple copies. Later, my aunt blew a copy of the picture up, and it hangs on my wall with my ticket stub from that day.
But the story does not stop here. Oh no, it does not. Feeling invincible, my dad and I talked to my friend and his family for a little bit, and talked about playing on the big field in Ripken Stadium (they actually scaled it down). Then my friend's dad comes over to me, points to a girl sitting alone in a row of seats alone, and whispers, "That's Rachel Ripken right there. I'll give you five dollars if you go over to her and get her to sign one of the baseballs." When I think about it now, no way amount of money could get me to go over to my biggest baseball idol's daughter and ask her for her autograph, especially when she is three years older than me. But that night, something felt different, so I did. I walked over to her and asked her to sign it. She did. She said something about her signing it decreasing the value, but I had another one, so I said that it didn't matter. I thanked her and walked over to my friend's dad and collected my five dollars.
That ball is in a case on a shelf over my desk, joining my autograph collection of Randy Milligan (my aunt gave it to me, no clue who he is. All I know is that I have his rookie card too), Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, a minor league baseball player from the Vermont Expos (I got it like 8 or 9 years ago, so he's probably out of baseball), an Aberdeen Ironbirds player, and two bands, Sugarcult and Silversun Pickups.
That night was one of the best of my life, and I will always remember meeting, my hero, Cal Ripken, Jr.
Note: This is Part 1 of 3. Part 2 will focus on Tony Gwynn and Part 3 will focus on my visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month. It was all going to be one big entry, but I wrote so much, I decided to make it three.