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8 Upper

Going, Going, Gone

By Tom Scocca | Posted 6/27/2001

It is not out of any disloyalty to Cal Ripken Jr. that I'm hoping that his retirement turns out to be only the second-biggest baseball story of the fall. It's just that while everyone around here was straining to digest the startling news that a 40-year-old man was going to stop playing baseball soon, Barry Bonds was hitting his 37th, 38th, and 39th home runs. If you don't have a calendar handy, it's worth mentioning that we're still in June.

Since 1927, the best and most reliable answer to the question of whether the home-run record will get broken this year has been no. Only twice has that been wrong--three times if you count Sammy Sosa. In 1998, I think I was still insisting that Mark McGwire wouldn't break Roger Maris' record of 61 when McGwire had 63 or 64. And Bonds himself has said he most likely won't beat McGwire's 70.

Still, 39 home runs is a decent down payment. Only two people before have had even 37 homers at the All-Star break: McGwire in his binge year, and Reggie Jackson in 1969, when the pitchers were still adjusting to the newly lowered pitcher's mound. This year, they changed the rules in the pitchers' favor, ordering umpires to call the high strike. And even so, Bonds is massacring the ball, with the All-Star Game nearly two weeks away.

So the record is, at press time, 31 homers away. This is a lot of home runs to ask someone to hit; before this year, Bonds was averaging 37 home runs per full season. But when you work it out, it doesn't look so bad: The 50-homer level, where the air starts getting thin, is only 11 away. If he gets 11 in July, and then 11 more in August--not unimaginable, really--then he's up there with Maris with September to go, and things get interesting.

Whereas the Ripken Farewell Tour promises to be anything but interesting. Even the initial buzz had less to do with the news than with the way Ripken delivered it, by handing an exclusive to Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post. That scoop sent the Baltimore sports-reporting press into a mortified panic, culminating in the comprehensive-yet-superfluous Sun headline, in doomsday type, ripken to retire. Shorn by the copy desk of all useful context--ripken [tells Post he is definitely going] to retire [after this year]--the screamer achieved a befuddling state of newslessness. ripken to retire. Ah. Also, man is mortal. Extra, extra.

What the people who rushed the commemorative sections into print missed was the future tense: Ripken is planning to retire in September. Which is not now. Frenzy was still in the air at the June 23 press conference where he officially announced his retirement, but it was already beginning to gnaw at its own limbs. The big room on the sixth floor of the Warehouse where the Orioles put the big event was writhing with media, thrown into chiaroscuro by the combination of glaring TV lights and thick structural timbers. And nothing was going on. Ripken was running late. All around the edge of the room, the TV reporters vamped through their live shots, mouthing idiocies to get through the dragging minutes. He saved the game. He embodies the American work ethic. Desperate, they dragged writers out of their chairs and made them vamp along. At one point, the guys from Channel 2 and Channel 13 floated--jokingly, I believe--the prospect of interviewing each other.

Is this how the long years of substance end? Ripken, when he finally arrived, was as thoughtful and sincere as ever. "I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to play in [this] city, my hometown," he said. "I accomplished what my skill set and my ability and my determination allowed me to," he said. Whenever he did anything remotely photogenic, a volley of flashbulbs went off. The flashbulbs especially liked it when he touched his wife.

As far as I know, the most sensible remark came from 7-year-old Ryan Ripken, as relayed by his father. "He said, 'What if the Orioles need you?'" Cal Ripken said. "I was feeling good about that. . . . [Then] he said, 'Say if Segui gets hurt and they've got to move Conine to first, then you've got to play third.'"

The Orioles had not, as yet, been able to answer that question very well--and Ryan Ripken looked even more astute over the weekend, when emergency shortstop Brian Roberts, in his second week on the job, had a neck-snapping collision with Jerry Hairston Jr. Suddenly, the retiring third baseman was necessary to round out the infield.

So it will go between now and Sept. 30. On June 25, the Orioles introduced a new wrinkle, grabbing righty third baseman Tony Batista off waivers from Toronto. Batista hit 41 home runs for the Blue Jays last year, and had 13 with them this year--but he was hitting only .207 when they cut him, lower than Ripken's .217. The future may be arriving, but slowly.

Yet noise must be made; the papers must be filled. Which is why I'm pulling for Bonds to catch McGwire. There are aesthetic reasons too--I'd like to see the record that Babe Ruth made famous returned to a real ballplayer, not a musclebound ox. But mostly, I want to see all the gaudy excitement go west and stay there. We've had 21 years of a genuine sensation. We don't need to make something bogus of it now.

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