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Untold tales of Cal Ripken Jr., the Iron Man who saved baseball

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As baseball’s work stoppage lingered into the spring of 1995 and camps opened amid a loose plan for the teams to use replacement players, a small group of Baltimore fans gathered near the parking lot entrance to the Orioles’ facility, bathed in orange T-shirts and caps. They clutched baseballs, bats and file folders with cards.nike nfl jerseys cheap paypal

“Who are you guys waiting for?” I asked, walking past, at the outset of the first of two years covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun.
They responded with polite smiles but never moved, and were still there when I walked out at day’s end, still holding their unsigned memorabilia. That resolute ardor for the Orioles’ shortstop grew exponentially as the labor problems were settled, the players went back to work and Cal’s consecutive-games streak continued. As union leaders Tom Glavine and David Cone would attest, that was a difficult year for the players generally, as frustrated fans expressed their anger over the interruption of baseball, the loss of the 1994 postseason and World Series.

But for Cal, there was only love and respect. The notion that the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved the sport of baseball is a popular narrative I’ve never believed, having witnessed the day-to-day response to Ripken around the country three years earlier.5

Cal’s 1995 march on Lou Gehrig’s record, which culminated at Camden Yards in games 2,130 and 2,131 on Sept. 5 and 6, was exactly what the sport needed as it returned, and he was exactly the right person to provide it, because his consecutive-games streak was built upon an ethic fans wanted to see. He rightly referred to the fans’ reaction to him as a celebration of baseball, and that occurred day after day when Cal was on the field, out in the open.cheap nike nfl jersey

But in the midst of the ’95 season, he began to hold some postgame, late-night autograph sessions, home and road. After games, he’d retreat to the clubhouse for a quick bite to eat, and then take a seat next to the Orioles’ dugout — in my mind’s eye, I can still see him with a towel draped over his shoulder — as one single-file line snaked around the ballpark, extending to the left-field corner. And he would sign for everybody who took the time to wait, putting his name on baseballs, programs, bats, tickets, scraps of paper.

“It really began due to a simple surplus of energy, postgame,” said John Maroon, who led the Orioles’ media relations department. “He was pretty wound up after the game and he was getting a lot of requests from fans for signatures, so it started fairly generically and then became a thing. People started to clamor for it, and ask about it.”

I can’t remember actually timing those sessions, but they’d last more than an hour, easy. I’d return to the press box from the clubhouse, rewrite a game story, refresh the notebook — and as I packed up my stuff, he’d still be signing.

The peak of his autograph work that summer, however, occurred at the All-Star Game festivities, in the middle of a deadly heat wave. Arlington, Texas, was the site of the event that year, and it was so hot, more than 100 degrees, that a lot of players understandably retreated into the air conditioning after they completed their round of batting practice. Cal remained outside to sign … and sign … and sign … moving along the foul lines.

The late, great Gerry Fraley covered the Rangers at that time for the Dallas Morning News, and no writer had a more acerbic sense of humor. He was difficult to impress. But even Gerry stopped me to remark on Cal’s effort to connect with fans.

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