By Matthew Taylor
With his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cal Ripken is taking a victory lap around the sports pages, similar, in a metaphoric sense, to the lap he took at Camden Yards in 1995 after breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak.
It seems that, over a decade removed from that historical September evening when Cal played in his 2,131st straight game, sportswriters have replaced those eager baseball fans who reached out from the stands to touch a legend. In both cases the observers just want to pat No. 8 on the back and say, “Thanks.”
With so little dissent, it’s fair to call this a case of Americans rallying around the rosin bag. “United We Stand” for our baseball heroes -- sportswriters and fans joining hands in a rare show of national pastime unity.
I’m ready to lay down my blogger’s sword to join hands with those mightier-penned journalists, but before doing so I had to revisit the writing of a journalist whom I’ve long loved to hate: Ken Rosenthal.
Growing up, I had two favorite baseball rivalries: Orioles – Yankees and Rosenthal – Ripken.
Most folks know Ken Rosenthal as a baseball reporter for Fox (his current position), or as a writer for “The Sporting News” (his previous job). To me, he’s always been the negative columnist who consistently attacked the Ripken legend in the pages of The Sun.
A funny thing happened last week, though, as I looked back on some of Rosenthal’s work. The trip down Memory Lane, which intersects with 33rd and Eutaw streets, gave me a greater appreciation for the player and, to my surprise, the writer as well.
To be fair, my youthful animosity toward Ken Rosenthal wasn’t entirely misplaced. Rosenthal has acknowledged, “For better or worse, during my years as a columnist for The (Baltimore) Sun, I played Max Mercy to Ripken’s Roy Hobbs.”
The reference to the movie “The Natural” is, well, natural.
Much like the scene from the movie where Roy Hobbs shattered the press box window with a foul ball, Cal once busted up Rosenthal’s laptop computer in similar fashion.
I still remember Rosenthal’s column that ran the day after the incident. Rosenthal jokingly referenced how the ball arrived right at the time he was writing the words “sit” and “down,” and I thought, “Atta boy, Cal!”
Good had triumphed once more over Evil.
Upon Further Review
Over time, my perspective on journalism – and sports journalism, in particular – changed. Like so many other fans, I once wanted my media like I want my seventh inning stretch: “Root, root, root for the home team.” So you’ll forgive me if, until now, I’ve had a selective memory about Ken Rosenthal.
The columns I remember read like this one from April 18, 1999, in The Sun:
“No one wants to see this. No one wants to see Cal Ripken embarrassed. No one wants to see a great player stumble at the end of his career. It was only yesterday that Ripken was an offensive force, driving balls to the gaps, hitting
three-run homers, delivering clutch RBIs. It was only yesterday that he was one of the game's top defensive players, catching every grounder, chasing down pop-ups, making powerful throws. That Cal Ripken has disappeared, maybe for good. It's sad to watch. It appears Ripken is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career.”
So easily forgotten are the (more frequent) columns like this, from the Evening Sun on Sept. 21, 1991:
“Everyone knows the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken is completing a fantastic season, but it's not just any old career year. No, it's one of the greatest all-around seasons by a shortstop in major-league history. Ripken was a likely Hall of Famer even before this year, thanks to his streak of 1,557 consecutive games, record-setting defense and batting prowess while playing a position usually reserved for little guys named Ozzie. But 1991 not only marks a thunderous end to his four-year offensive decline, it could be remembered as the year Ripken began firmly establishing himself as one of baseball's greats.”
I have higher expectations for journalists these days, including sportswriters. My favorite sports writer, Rick Reilly, summed it up best during a Q&A session that followed a speech he gave at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. When asked which athletes are his friends, Rosenthal responded, “None of them.” He explained that he was supposed to report about athletes rather than be their friends.
That’s what Rosenthal did all along with Cal.
Consider the Source
It seems my trip down Memory Lane took an unexpected turn. Given a chance to reconsider my frustration with Ken Rosenthal, my rage has been replaced by respect.
In a town where suggestions that Cal Ripken sit out for a game, or move from shortstop to third base, were considered heresy, Rosenthal wasn’t afraid to legitimately challenge a hometown hero. He ribbed Ripken rather than revere him. After all, that was his job.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rosenthal's writing is that he ultimately wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong. After all, baseball isn’t science, even if the stat heads want to make it just that.
In a 2001 column for The Sporting News Rosenthal chronicles the many times that Cal rose to the occasion after the sportswriter questioned the shortstop. The column is the most fitting tribute to Ripken that I've read, even if it came well before his election to the Hall of Fame.
Rosenthal concludes: “Ripken always played hard, always played hurt, always played to win. And he always got the last word.”
Considering the entertaining rivalry - real and imagined - that existed between The Sun columnist and the Iron Man, Ken Rosenthal deserves the last word about one of Baltimore's greatest sports legends.