Farewell super Cal, the man who saved America's first love

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The Independent Online

Underneath the names of the occupants of the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York is a prosaic stats 'n' facts recitation of their career – the sort of stuff that couldn't fit on a gravestone, that only baseball tragics love to read. When Cal Ripken's name and likeness are enshrined, a simple piece of rhetoric will suffice: "He Saved Baseball".

Ripken is 41. Last week he formally bowed to the inevitable, announcing his retirement from Major League Baseball, after a career spanning 21 seasons.

By his stats – 3,000-plus hits, 400 or so home runs, two Most Valuable Player awards, a stretch of 95 games without a single error at shortstop, as well as a World Series victory – and the fact that he remained at a single club, the Baltimore Orioles, throughout his career, Ripken is of a type that will not be seen again.

Beyond that, though, is the part he played in restoring America's love affair with what had been its national pastime. Ripken's career began in August, 1981. The "streak" of continuous play began in May the following year. On 12 August, 1994, the Major League Baseball Players' Association, provoked by the demand of team owners for a salary cap, called the players out on strike. A month later, the owners did the unthinkable and cancelled the season, including the World Series.

It was a dispute with no heroes. "Just a few hundred folks trying to figure out how to divide nearly $2bn," the then president, Bill Clinton, said.

An uneasy reconciliation was forced in early April, 1995, but the odour of rancour and disdain lasted through the season, until the evening of 6 September, when it was lifted in Baltimore not by one spectacular athletic feat, but by the gradual recognition of an edifice that had been erected brick by brick, game by game, by the Orioles' shortstop.

That night, Cal Ripken broke the long-standing record of 2,130 consecutive games played, set by Lou Gehrig, the legendary and beloved first baseman of the New York Yankees. Ripken had endured herniated discs, twisted ankles, dodgy knees and bone-rattling collisions with catchers guarding home base. An unusually tall and graceful figure, he had redefined his position, vacuuming balls in the middle infield.

To the millions who secretly longed for a chance to love the game again, Ripken was the excuse to get back in touch. His streak eventually ran to 2,632 games, or almost 16 seasons, ending on the last day of the 1998 schedule.

By then, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa owned the headlines for their home-run binge. Arguably, it would have been too little, too late, but for Cal Ripken's perfect attendance record through all those years.

Money does talk

In the modern rules of sporting commercial engagement, you can tell an athlete by the companies that keep him, which made two recent, separate, developments interesting for what they said about the respective paths of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

Woods is about to sign a five-year, $50m agreement with the Walt Disney company. This will require his participation in further pointless TV events like the "Battle of Bighorn" featuring himself, David Duval, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb.

Jordan has also signed an endorsement agreement, with two companies that are the polar opposite of the Disney corporate juggernaut. Jordan, whose plans for a comeback have been slowed by cracked ribs suffered in a training mishap, will receive a minimum $1.25m a year for three years to lend his name, signature and "favourite software" to the makers of the Palm brand of hand-held computers. Palm, now under threat from upstarts like Handspring and Blackberry, after its sales dropped 24 per cent inn the past 12 months.

The deal was brokered by a company called PTN Media. In their latest report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the company sent up a distress flare. "We have incurred losses of $9,539,672 since our inception. We may be unable to continue in existence unless we can arrange additional financing."

Name of the game

FOR SALE: Naming rights to one small but beautifully formed US PGA tournament, held each year in a town of 12,000 in outer, outer New York state. Rights are for two years, starting at $1.1m per year. Previous winners of the event include Fred Couples and John Daly.

The town is Endicott, 320km north-west of the Big Apple. The tournament is the BC Open, named for the decades-old and widely distributed comic strip penned by the town's most famous son, Johnny Hart. This year's tournament, the 31st, will be held from 19 to 22 July.

Why is any of this relevant? Only because the sponsorship is being sold through the internet's garage-sale site, e-Bay (item no. 1157534297). Sellers on e-Bay have previously, and variously, offered their soul, and, via the Salt Lake Olympic Organising Committee, prime tickets to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Subtlety in the sales pitches tends to go unrewarded, hence the assertion on the tournament's website that "the estimated value of the BC Open's title sponsorship is nearly four times that of the opening bid". So far there has been no opening bid.

According to the usual e- Bay rules and regulations, the successful bidder can pay by Visa or MasterCard. The online auction ends on Thursday evening.

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