Just Another Chapter

by Chris Haffenreffer | 4/18/00 5:00am

Add another chapter to a storybook career. Saturday night Cal Ripken became the 24th player to reach 3,000 hits in his career, and just the 7th to reach 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.

After entering this season a mere nine hits shy of the hallowed mark, Ripken had gone just 6-for-34 before Saturday. However, he seemed to overcome the ailing back and nervousness that had plagued him since the start of the season.

After grounding out in his first at bat, Cal singled to right off Twins pitcher Sean Bergman in the fourth, and hit a bouncing infield single in the fifth.

As Ripken walked to the plate in the seventh, Twins manager Tom Kelly was booed by his own fans as he went to the mound to make a pitching change. The first pitch by reliever Hector Carrasco went for a past ball, but Ripken lined the next pitch up the middle for hit number 3,000.

As the Metrodome crowd stood to honor baseball's Iron Man, Ripken shook hands with Twins first baseman Ron Coomer, and was greeted by first base coach Eddie Murray, also a member of the 3,000 hit club. "To meet Eddie at first base, that was a special moment," Ripken said. "He said, 'Way to go, welcome to the club.'"

After teammate Will Clark retrieved the ball, Ripken walked to the stands and tossed the ball to his wife. He mouthed the words "thank you" to the crowd, and the rest of the Orioles came out of the dugout to congratulate the 39 year-old.

In an era when we often question the validity of professional athletes as role models, Cal Ripken Jr. stands as a paragon of what a professional athlete should be. Professional athletes often shun the title of role model, claiming that one's parents are the only true role models. They remind us that they are ordinary people. They tell us that their parents were the only role models they had. They casually claim that children in this country shouldn't treat athletes any differently than any other person making a living.

We shouldn't treat athletes differently. We shouldn't pay them the exorbitant amounts of money that we do. We shouldn't allow golfer Notah Begay to wander the golf courses of Arizona on a "work release program" after being picked up for DUI, but we do. In a society that values sports to the extent that we do, the professional athlete is automatically thrust into the child's life as a role model. Therefore, although athletes may be right in saying that they should not be singled out as role models, our society forces the title of role model on professional athletes, whether they like it or not.

"I never perceive of myself as a hero of any kind. I'm just a baseball player," says Ripken, "But if you are in a position to influence people's lives, why not do all you can to cast it in a positive light."

He's just an ordinary guy doing his job every day, but with the realization that what he does can influence lives. He has a wife and two kids. He plays for the team, not himself -- after playing shortstop for fifteen seasons, he switched to third base four seasons ago to help out the O's.

Ripken has spent his entire career in Baltimore--an unbelievable feat in this era of free agency. Throughout his professional career he has never faced any sort of criminal charges. He established an organization for troubled Baltimore youth. Do I even need to mention "The Streak?"

"It was a celebration for baseball, not me," Ripken said after the night in '95 when baseball's new Iron Man was crowned. "I just happened to be the person that was of focus at that moment."

Maybe it's just me, but don't you believe him? Ironically, the one athlete who truly doesn't view himself as superior to the rest of society is the one athlete who should be held up as a role model.

Cal Ripken Jr. is not only one of the greatest shortstops to have played the game, but also one of the greatest men to have played the game. In joining the 3,000 hit club, he only adds to his list of accomplishments and gives us another reason to look back on a storied career.

Therefore, to both the kids and professional athletes of America, if you need a role model (yes, professional athletes, you need a role model too) look first to your parents. Then look to No. 8 of the Baltimore Orioles.