Neal Shaffer: Thinking about Cal Ripken Jr. as O's return to prominence

The other day I got to thinking about Cal Ripken.

I've got this old baseball. In great shape, still in the Rawlings box. Model RO-A. "Official American League Baseball" from back when the American and National Leagues were separate entities. "Cushioned Cork Center," it says. Emblazoned with the script signature mark of then-AL president Bobby Brown.

I'm not actually sure when or how I got the ball. It must have arrived shortly after my family moved to Maryland in '88, right around the time I was falling in love with these Orioles for good. I'm pretty sure the credit goes, as for many things, to my mom.

Somehow this ball followed me from my childhood bedroom to college and Winans Way, then on to Elm Avenue and a couple of other stops. Then to Brick Hill and, for now, to where I am today. I only own a handful of things I can trace back that far.

On its own, the ball is a cool relic; a nice (if small) bit of baseball history. What I particularly like about it, though, is the fact that Cal autographed it.

The autograph doesn't make the ball rare. It doesn't make it interesting or different or valuable the way some autographs might. This ball is probably not worth much of anything.

That's what makes it special.

Cal's been retired for 12 years. A long time. Long enough that when you combine distance with losing I'd bet many current Orioles fans don't have much meaningful connection to the Ripken era.

With the team now strong again, about to finish on the plus side of .500 for the second year in a row and blessed with stars like Adam Jones and Manny Machado, we'd do well to remember.

See, Cal embodied the core of what makes Baltimore a great city and what makes Orioles fandom special. He was a great player statistically speaking, but his unique combination of grit, steadfastness, and joy is what made him stand out. The dude would literally spend hours autographing for fans, to the point where there's probably a million Ripken signatures out there on shirts, balls, pictures, pennants, and god knows what else.

Anyone who snagged a Ripken autograph as an "investment" was barking up the wrong tree. Scarcity was never the point. The point, and I'm guessing Cal would agree, was the connection. A personalized tie to the man, the game, and the team. Something to hold onto not for financial gain but for the feelings associated with it.

Baseball is at its best when it works like that. When the outside world fades away and the game becomes one with our love of it. Cal understood that as well as anyone and he sacrificed time and energy to give it as a gift.

Now that the Orioles are good again and seem poised to build something new, we as fans can help decide what the new thing looks like. Times have changed, for sure, but the values that matter haven't.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, remember to let the game in. Remember to savor that experience of being at the ballpark. Remember to feel something good.

Because, really, it's simple. If you're not enjoying it, why are you watching?

Neal Shaffer regularly blogs about the Orioles at The Loss Column, and his work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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