I’m .333 career vs. Cal Ripken Jr.
It was 1978, a semifinal game of the Maryland State High School playoffs. There were some grizzled guys in the bleachers, and rumor had it they were scouts, all there to see this kid from Aberdeen whose old man was a coach for the Orioles. Warming up to pitch, he looked a good bit taller than the rest of us. That we could handle—we managed three runs off him, my single contributing to one of them. Ripken’s hitting, though, was another story. We had the best pitcher in Baltimore County, a righthander with a tailing fastball, curve, screwball, and knuckler to go with his 9-0 record. For Ripken it was more like the batting cages in Ocean City: line drives that landed near no one. His third at bat I called time out, took off my catcher’s mask, and headed for the mound. “Jeff, man,” I told our pitcher, “you’ll never get it past him. Put it in his fuckin’ ear.” I trudged back, squatted, and held my glove up behind Ripken’s right hip. The pitch was well inside, maybe chest-high, and landed somewhere between the center and right fielders. Years later, when my brother was married at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, I stood at home plate, looked out to the 410 sign above the asphalt warning track, and realized it was a gulf I’d never traverse, leastways not with a home run. But back in high school, I hadn’t yet gained such wisdom. I’d been accepted to art school, but I also loved baseball, and I was not in awe of Ripken’s skills. I just wanted to beat his team. They scored four, though, and as I went behind the screen to wash the grime of the game from my face, one of the scouts called out, “Hey, kid, over here.” All right! Fuck art school! I’m goin’ to the minors! “Yes sir!” “How old’s your pitcher?” “Jeff? I dunno. He’s a senior.”
So my pro career lasted about seven seconds. Ripken’s, though, has gone on some two decades now—all for the Orioles, a local boy done good, in a town whose lunch bucket brigades take special pride in someone whose work ethic mirrors their own.
I wasn’t a local. A defense-contractor brat, I had lived all over the country, only moving to “Bawlmor” at the age of 12. I soon discovered I’d moved into one mean town: I’d heard nigger before, but only spat out with venom, aimed to provoke. In Charm City it was used casually among whites, not a fighting word but as denuded of passion as dog or cat. (Not for nothing had Baltimore been under federal lockdown during the Civil War. Maryland was a key border state, but its heart lay with the slave South.) Next my new classmates were informing me (here, where the first archdiocese in America was founded) that the Holocaust was God’s revenge on Jews for killing Christ. Whoa! Christ killing was some heavy stuff. I was beginning to perceive, if not fully understand, that prejudice was simply the brutal denial of someone else’s humanity. In retrospect, other towns in our fair land might have struck me this way too, because innocence ends around 12, when kids begin taking up the hatreds of their elders and choosing sides. Still, when I thought about it for more than a minute, it didn’t jibe with the friends and families I’d known in places like the Bay Area or New Mexico. For added cognitive dissonance, even the most racist folk I knew in Baltimore were Edddd-deee! Edddd-deee! Murray fans, as was Ripken, who found in the great power-hitting first baseman a mentor, close friend, and example of hard, steady work. Murray could easily have been on Pino’s list in Do the Right Thing, when John Turturro’s character talks himself into a hopeless tangle trying to explain why Magic Johnson and Prince, stars he loves and admires, can’t be niggers ’cause “they’re not black.”
So what’s a kid stuck in a provincial city to do? I looked around this hardworking, blue-collar town and saw that everyone loved the Orioles. Therefore I became a Yankee fan. First, only to myself, but as I got older I came out, finally going nuts for those brawling, swaggering, charged teams of ’77 and ’78, teams flipping the bird to anything provincial and dim, teams that made Gotham—crazed, intense, in thrall to the Yanks and to Son of Sam’s madness—enormously appealing.
Eventually, of course, I met other people in Baltimore, the kind who are not afraid of the “other,” who laugh at the bogeymen of tabloids and pulpits, who just live life and make it worth living, and they were big Oriole fans, all of them abuzz about Ripken’s Rookie of the Year season. Then came his ’83 MVP year, coinciding with the Birds’ world championship. And soon, the first inklings of the Streak. At some point during the Streak, I moved to New York, watched people come into this world and go out of it, saw marriages begin, frazzle, and end, and went 2 for 4 in presidential elections, all the while catching Ripken from the corner of my eye, remembering the last baseball game I ever played. My Yanks were in a long dry spell and Ripken was playing for some dog Oriole teams, but like many of his hardcore fans, he kept showing up for work every day, no matter what, methodically piling up hits and homers and defining the future of his position. Classic no-hit/all-field shortstops like his predecessor, Mark Belanger, no longer cut it.
As it stands now, Ripken is one of only seven players in history to have over 3000 hits and 400 homers, great numbers, even without his monumental streak of 2632 consecutive games played. And yeah, Ripken’s is a standard of will, not one of pure, glittering talent—it’s for sure no 56-game hitting streak. But then, he’s already signed more autographs for free than the Yankee Clipper got paid for during his entire life. And perhaps that’s why, despite grumblings that the Streak hurt the team (though no one player could’ve hurt teams like 1988’s, with its 0-21 start), Ripken is still widely loved and admired across the spectrum in Baltimore.
“No one ever remembers who comes in second place!” “I do, Charlie Brown,” retorts Linus, running off a litany of teams from early last century, the ellipsis at the end of his dialogue balloon implying he could keep on going right up to the 2000 Mets. Linus always perceives the fathomless palette of grays that an obtuse Charlie Brown or self-absorbed Lucy knows only as black and white.
Yankee fans too, in our dominion, forget that not everyone can cheer for a 26-time champ—God knows, something deeper than winning keeps Red Sox, Indians, and Cubs fans trudging to the park every spring. They know that someone always has to lose, but isn’t necessarily a loser. Or as Randy Newman once had it, “Oh, Baltimore, man it’s hard, just to live.” ❖