“One question I’ve been repeatedly asked these past few weeks is, ‘How do I want to be remembered?’ My answer is simple. To be remembered at all is pretty special.
I might also add that if, if I am remembered, I hope it’s because by living my dream, I was able to make a difference.”
And with these spoken lines, Cal Ripken Jr. strode off the baseball field as a major league player for the last time.
In a sports bar in New Haven, a friend turned to me and said, “I can’t believe that’s it. I can’t believe we will never see Cal Ripken play baseball again.”
I couldn’t believe it either, nor could the 48,807 fans on hand at Camden Yards in Baltimore. The Iron Man, who had played in 2,632 straight games, would never play in a major league game again.
As tears rolled down Ripken’s face after the game and before he spoke, Oriole greats from years past greeted him. His family flanked his side. Fans pleaded with him, “One more year” and then chanted the more resigned, “Thank you, Cal.” And images in his likeness lined the warehouse at Camden Yards, the house built for Ripken.
And then he spoke his last words, telling the world he had lived his dream, and he hoped this had made a difference.
Even as Ripken leaves his playing days behind, his career and life will continue to make a difference, leading by example, which has always been the Ripken Way.
Sure, there are Ripken’s statistics and accolades. MVP awards, top-notch defensive and offensive numbers, a World Series ring — he’s done just about everything. Even without his incredible consecutive games streak, Ripken is unquestionably a first-ballot hall of famer, and perhaps the greatest shortstop of all time. But this does not even touch the essence of Ripken.
In my case, I have been in a down mood since the attacks of Sept. 11. Perhaps it is because I have felt alone. Perhaps it is because of a fear of what tomorrow might bring. Perhaps it is because I have lost some faith in humanity.
But when I saw Ripken play for one last time Saturday night, I gazed into his crystal blue eyes — eyes with more intensity than anyone else’s, and yet a blissful calm about them at the same time. And as he stared out of the screen, I felt reassured.
Ripken’s values and deeds made me feel better at a time when I needed it most. He inspired me, helped my faith in humanity, and renewed my belief in love. For love was always Ripken’s underlying motivation for what he did. It was what carried his dream and allowed him to be both the player and person he was, and is.
Sitting with two friends, in the only bar in New Haven that was broadcasting the game, I reflected on why Ripken had yet again been able to make a difference.
The answer seemed simple — Ripken did his job, day in and day out without an excuse.
He did not miss a game for 17 straight seasons — 2,632 straight games in total. At the beginning of the streak, he played in 904 straight games without missing an inning — 8,243 consecutive innings.
And while doing his job seems like it should be taken for granted — it is, after all, what he is supposed to do — few in the world do their jobs like this. I don’t even go to every class, let alone stay awake for every single minute.
But not only did he show up and do his job everyday, which is remarkable by itself, he gave his all every single time he played, giving more effort on the field than anyone else. He never showed up to the park and ran out a fly ball half-heartedly. He gave 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time. And that is something from which we can all learn.
Ripken never relented.
He did more than the things in his job description. He was an ambassador for the game of baseball. Many say he saved baseball after the 1994-95 strike.
In truth, that is an overstatement. But he did help show why baseball is such a great game, and helped restore a good name to the game.
Ripken spent hours after games signing autographs for fans. He had conversations with them. He gave back in a way that no athlete ever has or probably ever will.
Just like the standard he set as a baseball player, Ripken set an example as a human being to which others can only aspire.
As former President Bill Clinton said before the game, “Cal Ripken is a model to the game of baseball, [a model] of loyalty to his team, but most important, he is the kind of man every father wishes his son would grow up to be.”
His simple acts of kindness inspired and moved people from all walks of life, bringing smiles to people’s faces, and brightening their days.
And as the fans shouted “One more year” and Ripken struggled to speak, you knew all in the crowd felt the same way — that indeed, Ripken had made a difference.
And why did he go beyond the call of duty? Because of love. Love of the game. Love of life. And, as he said in his final speech, the love that the fans gave him, which inspired him as well.
Because of all this, Ripken has meant so much to so many. He meant so much to me, the little boy who named his toys after Cal; to me, the teenager who cried when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record; to me, the senior in college who had his faith in humanity reaffirmed by simply watching Ripken for one last time.
Ripken has repeatedly shown us that baseball is a timeless game, whether by playing in every game and setting a standard for excellence that will surely stand the test of time, or by winning the MVP award in the All Star Game of his last season, even when common wisdom said he was over the hill. Saturday night, he showed us that baseball is timeless in a different way.
With his humility, Ripken reminded us that baseball will go on. As former Yale President and former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti said in his speech banning Pete Rose, “[The] hurt will pass, however, as the great glory of the game asserts itself and a resilient institution goes forward. Let it also be clear that no individual is superior to the game.”
And, as Ripken said this past June: “I don’t see this is as an ending much. I’m not stopping something. I’m just moving on.”
Yes, the game will go on. But for one night, it seemed to pause, timeless in space, as no one would let Ripken actually say those final words and walk off the field.
And when he did finally walk off, as Giamatti said in “The Green Fields of the Mind,” the game stopped, leaving us “to face the fall alone.”
But when Cal Ripken Jr. left us, we knew it would be okay; we knew spring would once again come around; we knew kids would play in the sandlots, tossing the ball around without a care.
He left with a twinkle in his eye, and a nod of his head, reminding me that, despite the tears in my eyes, I had nothing to dread.