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August 27, 2001

A legend in Orange and Black

Eric Rangus is senior editor of Emory Report.

I am not a role model!” That was the message then-NBA star Charles Barkley bellowed in his infamous early 1990s Nike commercial.

The oft-misinterpreted statement was partially an in-your-face answer to the critics who demanded he tone down his combative nature, which many claimed adversely affected the kids who looked up to him. But it was primarily a warning to parents:

Athletes, musicians and actors shouldn’t be role models for children. Instead, boys and girls should emulate teachers and scientists and firefighters or even, God forbid, their parents. It was a line of great subtlety (albeit one stuck in an advertisement) from an incredibly un-subtle man.

It’s a nice thought, too. But it’s not the way the world works. Show me a biology teacher who has a sneaker with her autograph on it, and I’ll show you a role model everyone would love. And that, for better or worse, is the way it’s always been.

That said, a lot of athletes are worthy of admiration. Lance Armstrong. Mia Hamm. Shane Battier. And perhaps the ultimate athlete/role model—a man I was fortunate enough to see play in person, in his hometown, earlier this month: Cal Ripken.

When my buddy Don Campbell, a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, called and told me he couldn’t make it down from New Hampshire to Baltimore the weekend of Aug. 11 for the Orioles game against the Sox, I jumped at the tickets. While I’m hardly a candidate for a MasterCard commercial, I am always up for a trip. Particularly to Maryland, which I have found to be one of the nation’s most underrated vacation destinations.

Actually, before I begin waxing wonderful on Cal Ripken, let me take a second to plug Baltimore as the best baseball city in the country. For those of you who’ve been there, you know what I am talking about. For those of you who haven’t, bear with me, then make your travel reservations as soon as possible—there’s still a little more than a month before the regular season ends.

First of all, anyone who considers himself or herself a baseball fan must attend a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It’s a role model for stadiums, if you will. Opened in 1992, Oriole Park ushered in what has become a renaissance in stadium architecture and reinterpreted the experience of attending a ballgame.

Every baseball stadium (and even a couple in other sports) built since then owes its personality to Oriole Park. The trend in Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, in Seattle, in … umm … Atlanta, is retro. In fact, all these new parks try to out-retro each other with the brickwork and steel girders prominent in newsreel footage and rebirthed by Oriole Park. A few (Seattle, Houston and Phoenix) have improved on the model by adding retractable domes—a nice, weather-savvy touch.

While each of the new stadiums offers its own unique take on the Oriole Park model (the recast Olympic Stadium that has become Turner Field is, for all intents and purposes, Oriole Park without the right-field warehouse and blue seats rather than green), none matches the original.

There’s even a light-rail stop that dumps fans off 100 feet from the front gate. This is something, unfortunately, that Atlanta cannot duplicate.

Part of Oriole Park’s wonderful atmosphere has to do with the fans, who are passionate yet laid back, and part of it has to do with the city itself. Oriole Park, which is in downtown Baltimore (another stadium trend its construction helped usher in), serves as the centerpiece of what has become one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the country: Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The Inner Harbor, which is a three-block walk from the stadium, was a blighted, abandoned warehouse-filled district for many years until the 1980s (just a few years before Oriole Park came along) when a pair of restaurant, retail and entertainment complexes were constructed, replacing the dilapidated structures that once lined the downtown waters.

The adjacent, two-story structures, on gamedays and during weekends, are packed tighter than a Buckhead taxicab. On the west side of the harbor sits the Maryland Science Center; the east side is home to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Next to the aquarium—never let a prime retail spot go to waste—are the Hard Rock Café and a Barnes and Noble. The area is perfect for a family outing, a first date, a 30th date, or just a trip into city with the guys. Usually, all these things are going on at the same time. (Oh, if this atmosphere were only possible in Atlanta …)

But the jewel of the Harbor is the House that Cal Built, featuring the Sport He Re-built. Ripken’s contributions to baseball cannot be overestimated. His chase and conquest of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games-played streak restored a lot of good graces thought destroyed by the players’ strike of 1994.

Then there’s Ripken’s inherent goodness and class, which make him an ideal role model for anyone.

He’s nice (Ripken is one of baseball’s most accessible autograph signers), he’s hard working (that 2,632 consecutive games played streak is pretty telltale), he’s talented (in five years he could become the first unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame), and he gives back to his community (try and find something in Maryland he hasn’t sponsored or lent his name to).

And Ripken, who is a native of Havre de Grace, Md., up Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore, has still got something left. After spending much of the first half of the season descending into a mediocre abyss, Ripken in his final months is enjoying a fine hot streak to end his playing career.

Beginning with his remarkable All-Star Game homer, which won his team the game and himself the MVP award, Ripken has batted well over .300 and is making headlines everywhere he goes.

How many visiting players must give curtain calls to acknowledge standing ovations like Ripken did here in Atlanta earlier this summer? Not a whole lot.

At the game that Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, every time Ripken’s name was called, the crowd erupted. He caught a pop up to end an inning and almost received a standing ovation. Ripken had a great game, actually. He went 3-for-3, including a perfectly executed hit-and-run in the second inning when he bounced a single past Boston’s second baseman, who had vacated his position to cover second.

Ripken played the game the way it was supposed to be played—something he’s done for 20 years. It was probably something he learned from his late father, Cal Sr., a coach in the Orioles organization for decades.

Moms, dads, sons and daughters all wore replicas of Ripken’s number 8. The stadium was awash in white, orange and black. No other Oriole jerseys were even represented.

After the game, a mere mention of the Orioles’ 4–2 win to a fellow rider on the train heading out to Baltimore’s south side brought the question, “Did Cal Ripken play?”

“He is just a wonderful man; he does so much for this area,” said one woman, who had not gone to the game but had visited the convention center a block from Oriole Park with her boyfriend to attend an anime convention, proving that baseball does indeed cross all cultural lines. If you are looking to strike up a conversation in Maryland’s largest city, just mention Cal.

So, are finding role models in athletics a lost cause? No. But with the departure of Ripken from the playing field. And Tony Gwynn. And Ray Borque. And (hopefully no time soon) Mark McGwire, they are becoming a little tougher to uncover.

I know that, should I ever have children, I would love it if they looked up to teachers or scientists or firefighters or, God forbid, me. But I might just buy them an Orioles cap anyway.


Back to Emory Report August 27, 2001