Sunday, May 17, 2009

A homecoming for former Red Wing Cal Ripken Jr.

Hey folks, tomorrow night the Rochester Press-Radio Club hosts its 60th Day of Champions children's charity banquet. Our headliner this year is Cal Ripken Jr. Here's the piece I wrote about the Baseball Hall of Famer and former Rochester Red Wing for our dinner program:

Cal Ripken Jr. was one of the rare ones who got it.

As far back as three decades ago, when he was still a Baltimore Orioles legend-in-the-making while honing his craft at old Silver Stadium, he realized his job went beyond hitting line drives and vacuuming up grounders. The former Rochester Red Wings star understood he had a responsibility – an obligation, really – to interact with fans, to be an ambassador as well as a shortstop.

Unlike so many big-name athletes, Cal never acted as if he were entitled. He always displayed gratitude for being given an opportunity to make a wonderful living playing a little boy’s game.

And that, as much as his famous ‘Iron Man’ streak of 2,632 consecutive games, his 3,000-plus hits and his 19 All-Star Game appearances, has always resonated with me and millions of others who long ago grew weary of the avaricious louts who often dominate the sports pages and the airwaves. It is why I’ve always admired Cal and often sang his praises during my time as a sports columnist.

More than 35 years in the business taught me that most prominent celebrities don’t get it. Though many of them hail from humble backgrounds, they often forget their roots when they hit the big time. They act as if this is somehow their birthright, to be rich and famous. They treat fans and media with disdain. They delude themselves into believing that what they do is somehow the equivalent of discovering the cure for cancer or a solution for world peace. They believe their profession owes them everything and they owe little or nothing in return.

Cal, though, isn’t that way. He’s been able to keep things in perspective. Despite his extraordinary popularity, he’s remained grounded. He has always given back to the game that has given him so much. His desire to interact with fans – especially young ones – is sincere and genuine.

“I guess I just realized that the game is more special because there were people in the stands watching,’’ says the man who won International League Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1981 after batting .288 with 23 homers, 31 doubles and 75 runs batted in while playing in 114 consecutive games for the Wings.

Whether it was by signing autographs or posing for pictures, Cal always sought to bridge the gap between the stands and the diamond.

His victory lap around Camden Yards after breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games-played streak of 2,130 on Sept. 6, 1995 remains one of baseball’s shining moments. And it couldn’t have come at a better time because the game was still reeling from the cancellation of the World Series the previous year. Many fans, disgusted by the greedy players and owners, had sworn they would never go to another game.

But Ripken won many of them back. His admirable work ethic and sense of gratitude was a reminder of what was right about baseball.

His return tonight will be a homecoming of sorts for the Red Wings most famous alumnus. This was where he spent the summer of ’69 while his father managed the Wings, and this also was his summer home 12 years later when he played shortstop and third base for our Triple-A club before heading off to the Orioles and embarking on a journey that would land him in Cooperstown.

“I’ll always have fond memories of my time in Rochester,’’ says Ripken, the recipient of this year’s Coca-Cola Sports Personality of the Year Award. “The people there were always kind to me, and they’ve continued to be wonderful every time I return.’’

Ripken has been back on numerous occasions since 1981.

While with the Orioles, he played several exhibition games at old Silver Stadium and the new Frontier Field. At the 1997 exhibition against the Wings, Ripken received a 25-second standing ovation from an overflow crowd of 13,723 – still the most ever to attend a baseball game at Frontier.

On Aug. 29, 2003, he returned again for his induction into the Red Wings Hall of Fame, and a youth baseball clinic he and his brother, Billy, conducted the following day at the ballpark.

And he was back again the following April to conduct another clinic for 40 kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Rochester. During that visit, he donated $100,000 for baseball equipment to the City of Rochester.

“I have not met another person who has such immense demands on their time who has shown so much willingness to give back to the fans,’’ says Wings general manager Dan Mason.

Mason saw that quiet class first-hand during Ripken’s induction into the Wings Hall of Fame.

“He said he’d come back, but he wanted to make sure he did a clinic for kids,’’ Mason says. “That was his stipulation, not mine.’’

Ripken’s kindness, especially toward kids, is as legendary as his streak.

No one knows that better than Carol and Mark Marchase of Honeoye Falls.

Eleven years ago, Ripken went deep into their hearts as gracefully as he once went deep into the hole. The 15 minutes he spent with their dying son, Kyle, before the Orioles-Wings exhibition in 1997 were among the best 15 minutes of the boy’s life.

Thanks to Ripken and the generosity of a friend and Mason, Kyle was able to fulfill a lifelong dream before dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at age 16 that November.

Kyle’s best friend, Rob Knebel, was well aware of how much his buddy worshipped Cal, and he figured a meeting with the Orioles great would boost Kyle’s spirits during arduous cancer treatments.

Rob’s mom contacted Mason and the Wings GM arranged for the Marchases to meet Ripken before the game.

“We thought it would just be a short meeting, and that was fine with us because we knew Cal was going to be busy that night and was going to be pulled in a lot of directions,’’ Carol recalls. “We were just honored to get the opportunity to meet him.’’

The Baseball Hall of Famer gave Kyle an autographed book, signed a jersey for him, posed for pictures, then spent 15 minutes talking baseball with the teenager.

When the Marchases read that the Orioles were going to play an exhibition in Rochester two years after Kyle died, they contacted Mason to see if they could meet with Ripken briefly in private. Before the game, Mason brought them down to the clubhouse, and they presented a plaque that included their thanks and the drawing of an angel.

“We included it on there because we wanted Cal to know that he was one of the angels in my son’s life,’’ Carol says.

Ripken was truly touched. His act of kindness was just one of many that endeared him to a place that has become his second baseball home. It was just another example of how he got it.


Max Robertson said...

I ran into a guy from Irondequoit who (back in 1969)told a kid that he couldn't play ball with him because he was too little. That little kid grew up to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. I think Cal lived in (former Red Wing Mgr.) Billy DeMars house on Biltmore Rd. Anyone out there know? If not, I'll ask him tomorrow night. 25 hours to go........

Country Mile said...

By the way, Old one tells Cal's or anyone's story better than you. I think that will also be acknowledged tomorrow night. Congratulations in advance!!