Cal Ripken Jr.'s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday punctuated his legacy as one of Baltimore's greatest sports figures.
Ripken not only played brilliantly, but he also always seemed to embody the very characteristics Baltimoreans use to describe their city. He was a small-town boy who spent his entire career with the franchise he grew up cheering. He didn't always have the game mastered, but he never stopped working to master it. He could be counted on.
"I'd have to put him right at the top," said fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson when asked to place Ripken in the Baltimore firmament. "He's certainly one of the greatest to ever play here along with [John] Unitas, [Gino] Marchetti, guys like that."
So who resides with Ripken in the pantheon, that level to which the key is forged by some alchemy of on- and off-field greatness?
Robinson and John Unitas are the obvious fellow tenants.
"Those three stand out," said Bill Tanton, who covered Unitas, Robinson and Ripken as sports editor of The Evening Sun.
Ray Lewis seems likely to end up there, though it's hard to put an ongoing career in perspective. Frank Robinson is widely regarded as the greatest player to ever wear an Orioles uniform. And Babe Ruth is the greatest athlete to have hailed from Baltimore.
Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, attended his first Orioles game in 1954 and his first Colts game in 1957, so he has seen most of the city's modern stars. He said he would put Ripken near the top of his list.
"Of the players comprising my top 10, Cal most likely will not be remembered as the greatest athlete of the bunch, nor the biggest superstar," Gibbons said. "But he did everything on and off the playing field at such a consistent level of quiet excellence, and for such a long tenure, that he achieved superstar status almost the equal of Brooks and/or John, two other athletes from the list with more modest physical attributes."
The city's connections to Brooks Robinson and Unitas formed during an era when athletes weren't multimillionaires, cloistered amid armies of public relations experts. They were much more likely to live, work, eat and drink with the people who cheered them.
Brooks Robinson's natural friendliness showed through in thousands of encounters with fans, who felt at ease approaching him in malls and hotel lobbies.
Tanton recalled that when the Orioles had just suffered a humiliating defeat to the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series, most of the players declined to be interviewed. So every reporter and columnist went to Robinson, knowing he would never turn anyone away.
"You ask anybody from that time who was the greatest guy they ever covered and they will all say Brooks," Tanton said. "He just had a wonderful warmth."
Brooks Robinson's personal qualities transcended even his play, which was spectacular. Cooperstown had never seen a crowd such as the one that made its way up from Baltimore when Robinson entered the Hall of Fame in 1983.
"I think that crowd came because I came with the franchise," Robinson said. "I saw all the bad times. I was there for all of it."
As the unquestioned leader of the city's most popular team, Unitas was the king of Baltimore. Fathers and grandfathers still speak in reverent tones about the former sandlot player with the stooped shoulders who made them feel no deficit was too great to overcome.
"No matter how many times you busted his nose or bloodied his hands, he got back up," Tanton recalled. "And he usually threw a touchdown pass when he did."
Unitas was voted the greatest player of the NFL's first 50 years, and his on-field legacy might slightly eclipse those of either Ripken or Robinson. His personality was less on the surface than Robinson's, but he also had a common touch.
"He could be gruff with us, but I'd see him stop and take real time with fans," Tanton said. "And not millionaire or celebrity types, little guys with shabby coats. People you can't imagine most guys spending any time with."
Ripken has spent his adult life being unfailingly polite to fans and autograph seekers. He took that memorable turn around Camden Yards after breaking Lou Gehrig's record streak of games played. And in his post-playing life, he teaches the game to kids. But an Orioles lover wouldn't expect to happen upon him on the next barstool in Fells Point. The nature of modern celebrity wouldn't allow it.
"Cal Ripken, while living in the Baltimore area, is not out and about in the community the way the older athletes were, but that is more indicative of the culture of fans today than of the stars they idolize," Gibbons said. "In the '50s and '60s and '70s, adoring fans seemed to respect the privacy of sports stars more than now. John Unitas could select wallpaper because fans allowed him that privilege. Not today. Cal Ripken in a wallpaper store would have virtually no time to shop before fans would be lined up for autographs."
Ripken's on-field legacy is unquestioned. As a large, powerful middle infielder, he was the harbinger of a new species. He was named to the All-Century team in 1999. Historian and statistics maven Bill James ranked him the 48th greatest player in baseball history, higher than any other Oriole but Frank Robinson.
His bond with Baltimore fans remains powerful. One of the loudest ovations at Camden Yards last season came when Ripken attended a game and stood to wave to the crowd from his seat.
"He's been the face of the Orioles - period," Brooks Robinson said.
Ripken's rare appeal flows in part from his lifelong ties to the franchise, which employed his father. He said he's still amazed he was able to do it all on his home turf.
"I'm from here and so being an Oriole was something I wanted in the worst way," he said. "The odds were totally against you. I was told as I was being scouted that chances were that I wouldn't end up on the Orioles, and as luck would have it, four picks in the second round gave me the opportunity to play for the Orioles. Then going through the system, you were against all odds to actually make it, then you were against all odds to actually stay once you do make it."
The city's teams have been blessed with a plethora of Hall of Fame talents and outsized personalities. Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown here. Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry shredded NFL defenses at Memorial Stadium while Gino Marchetti handled the offenses. Jim Palmer was a picture of steady grace on the mound and an underwear-modeling sex symbol off it. Fans chanted Eddie Murray's first name in virtual certainty that they were summoning another clutch hit.
Down at the Civic Center, Earl Monroe perfected basketball's most wondrous spin to the hole. Wes Unseld became the second rookie to be voted the NBA's Most Valuable Player.
Gibbons also nominated Orioles catcher Gus Triandos, whom he called the city's first modern sports hero, and Bullets forward Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson, a precursor to explosive frontcourt stars such as Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
In the most recent decade, emerged as perhaps the greatest left tackle in NFL history. Lewis became playmaker in chief for one of the great defenses in NFL history and, with his whooping, limb-flapping entrances, the face of the city's new football franchise.
A local high school star, Juan Dixon, led the University of Maryland to its first NCAA basketball championship.
Several Baltimore natives could be defining athletes of the rising generation. Carmelo Anthony leads the NBA in scoring at age 22. Michael Phelps might be on the way to consideration as the greatest swimmer of all time. Some speculate that Katie Hoff could be just as good on the women's side. Kimmie Meissner seems in line to be the country's next golden girl skater.
But for now, Ripken's tier of excellence isn't crowded.Copyright © 2015, CT Now