August 27, 2001
in Orange and Black
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 shouldnt 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.
Its a nice thought, too. But its not the way the world works.
Show me a biology teacher who has a sneaker with her autograph on it,
and Ill show you a role model everyone would love. And that, for
better or worse, is the way its always been.
That said, a lot of athletes are worthy of admiration. Lance Armstrong.
Mia Hamm. Shane Battier. And perhaps the ultimate athlete/role modela
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 couldnt 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 Im 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 nations 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 whove been there, you know what I am talking about.
For those of you who havent, bear with me, then make your travel
reservations as soon as possibletheres 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. Its 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
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
domesa 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.
Theres even a light-rail stop that dumps fans off 100 feet from
the front gate. This is something, unfortunately, that Atlanta cannot
Part of Oriole Parks 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:
Baltimores 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 aquariumnever let a prime retail
spot go to wasteare 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. Ripkens contributions to baseball cannot be overestimated.
His chase and conquest of Lou Gehrigs consecutive-games-played streak
restored a lot of good graces thought destroyed by the players strike
Then theres Ripkens inherent goodness and class, which make him an ideal role model for anyone.
Hes nice (Ripken is one of baseballs most accessible autograph
signers), hes hard working (that 2,632 consecutive games played
streak is pretty telltale), hes 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 hasnt
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
At the game that Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, every time Ripkens
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 Bostons second baseman, who
had vacated his position to cover second.
Ripken played the game the way it was supposed to be playedsomething
hes 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 Ripkens 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 42 win to a
fellow rider on the train heading out to Baltimores 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 Marylands 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.