Because when Cal Ripken, Jr. announced Tuesday he would be retiring from baseball at the end of this season he not only set in motion an unofficial farewell tour, lit up switchboards at Major League Baseball ticket offices across the U.S., and placed one very large burden his manager, Mike Hargrove he also ended an era that began when Ronald Reagan was a rookie president and signaled the passing of a time when ballplayers were synonymous with only one city.
A Rusting Iron Man
Until this week, Hargrove has been able to base his decision on playing 40-year-old third baseman solely on whether it would help the team. This year, that answer has often been no the two-time Most Valuable Player of the American League is now performing on a more ordinary level, putting up numbers (an unthreatening batting average of just .209, only 4 home runs) that would get many players sent down to the minor leagues and Ripken has actually sat out a few games. Now, Hargrove must take into account the fact that tens of thousands of fans will feel cheated every night Ripken sits.
The question of whether to play Ripken had been a no-brainer for Oriole managers in the past two decades.
On May 30, 1982, Ripken played.
On Sept. 19, 1998, Ripken played.
And every game in between.
He played when Arsenio and Alf were TV stars. He played when Sylvester Stallone starred in "Rocky V," "Rambo III" and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot." He played when KISS had makeup, then didn't, then did again.
But Ripken is an Iron Man by name only in 2001
No longer productive on a regular basis, Ripken is a part-timer hitting like one; through Thursday he was batting .209 with four homers and 25 RBIs in 51 games played. And that only compounds Hargrove's seemingly no-win situation.
For the fans, the choice is an easy one play the man. Even though he's not playing well, Ripken is the leading vote-getter at third base for this year's All-Star Game in Seattle on July 10. And, on the day he announced his pending retirement, all 19,600 remaining tickets for the Orioles' Sept. 30 season-ending game at Yankee Stadium were sold.
At each final stop in American League cities (see chart) Ripken will receive adulation reserved for an athlete who was the antithesis of the ills fans identify with modern sports free agency that tests players' loyalties and the erosion of commitment caused by inflated salaries. (Buy tickets to those games. Cal will play.)
Ripken's final home game will be played on Sunday, Sept. 23. It'll be a bittersweet day for all baseball fans, but most of all for the citizens of Baltimore. He's theirs. Always was, for 21 years. It's an anomaly in today's sporting culture that a player could span his entire Hall of Fame career in one city. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Roger Clemens all traveling salesmen by comparison. We cheer uniforms, not players (who can keep track?) these days, but Ripken made it easy to be an Orioles fan.
And though it's been a few years since he was the best player in baseball, it's worth remembering when Cal Ripken was. Ripken was named Rookie of the Year in 1982 and led the O's to their last World Series title in 1983, his first of two MVP seasons (1991 the other). He's made 18 straight appearances in the All-Star Game, smashed his 400th home run in September 1999 and collected his 3,000th hit in April 2000. Pundits have questioned for some time whether Ripken should have already hung up the spikes, but really, how could one leave with a more perfect baseball career?
NOTES: Ripken is one of only seven players to amass more than 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. The six others are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Dave Winfield & Carl Yastrzemski... Pete Rose owns the 11th- and 15-longest playing streaks in major league history (745; 678). The sum of those streaks still falls 1,209 games short of Ripken's mark... Ripken holds the major league record for home runs hit by a shortstop, with 345... 5,045 players were put on the disabled list from the time Ripken started his consecutive games streak to the time he first went on the DL in April 1999... Ripken was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1995.