BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Despite gaining a little weight and losing the rest of his hair since walking away from baseball a dozen years ago, Cal Ripken, Jr. remains instantly recognizable.
It doesn’t matter if it’s downtown Baltimore or some tiny hamlet in Puget Sound, jaws drop and eyes open wide when he enters a room.
”I still get recognized in places I would have never dreamed,“ said Ripken. ”In an antique shop in a small town. You go in and there are some older women in there and you’d think there’s no connection to baseball whatsoever.
“I’d come in and immediately get ID‘d.”
He’s a 19-time All-Star for the Baltimore Orioles and a Hall of Famer but it was Ripken’s record for consecutive games played, known simply in Baltimore as The Streak, that forever tossed him into the spotlight.
The record, set in 1995, snapped Lou Gehrig’s seemingly unbreakable mark of 2,130 consecutive games played. More people remember the night that Ripken set the record than recall that he finally took a seat after playing in 2,632 straight games.
“There was something about 2,131 - the relation to a work ethic - something that caught the country’s attention in that particular year,” the soft-spoken Ripken told Reuters in a wide-ranging interview at his foundation’s headquarters.
Ripken, 53, discussed his desire to return to baseball, his foundation’s work building ballparks for children around the country, and his sadness over Alex Rodriguez’s continuing saga over performance-enhancing drugs.
The year Ripken eclipsed Gehrig’s record followed the 1994 work stoppage that scrapped the entire postseason. Ripken said the record came at a time when the sport needed a lift.
“It gave you a glossy feeling, that you’re comparing baseball in your mind to the history of the game,” he said. “Lou Gehrig was one of the game’s best players. And so now the streak was front and center, and connected me to Gehrig’s era of baseball and people were looking for something good.”
After Ripken retired in 2001, he spent time with his family and his foundation, but now that his two children are grown, he’s ready to listen to offers about getting back in the game.
Ripken said he’s been asked several times since retiring to interview for a managerial post but always declined. While he’s not sitting by the phone, he’d now pick it up if it rings.
“I‘m not lobbying for it because if I was really interested in doing it, I would pick up the phone and call a team directly,” he said. “But if somebody thought of me in that way - and some people have - I would listen to it.”
Ripken admitted if he would become a big-league manager, he would like it to be with Baltimore, where he spent his entire 21-year playing career. But the life-long Marylander conceded with Buck Showalter’s success managing the Orioles, that will not happen anytime soon.
”Ideally, you’d want to put the same uniform back on but the reality states that Buck is there and there’s not an opportunity,“ he said. ”I don’t know the landscape of how that works. And it feels weird to think about other places.
“I have to sit down and think, ‘What do I really want to do?’ I haven’t figured it out yet. There’s nothing wrong with exploring it if somebody else wants to explore it.”
Ripken believes baseball has made great strides towards eliminating the use of performance-enhancing drugs though he admits, “I‘m not an expert, period, about steroids.”
“From a fan’s standpoint, someone who loves the game, it’s been damaging - how they throw around the steroid-era as if other people didn’t do it the right way,” he said.
“That kind of tarnishes everyone’s accomplishments, just by a general mindset and that’s always bothered me a little bit. From 10,000 feet, it seems like they’re very serious about getting rid of steroids. But it’s very much a work in progress.”
Ripken expressed heartache for Rodriguez, the New York Yankees third baseman who is appealing his 211-game, PED-related suspension from Major League Baseball.
”I met him when he was 16 years old,“ Ripken said. ”He was a good kid. He’s a student of the game, he loved the game. He was passionate. He ate up all the information I ever gave him.
“That’s why I see it as more sad than anything else because I see the good side in him.”
Whether or not Ripken returns to baseball, he will remain active in his foundation, named after his father, Cal Ripken, Sr., a former manager of the Orioles who died in 1999.
The foundation has been busy building multi-purpose “Youth Development Parks” in decaying areas across the country, facilities that cost more than $1 million each. By the end of 2013, 26 parks will have been completed and Ripken hopes to have 50 in operation within five years.
Next Tuesday the foundation will announce an effort to raise $30 million in 2014 to build more of the parks.
“In many areas, the kids we target are forgotten because people feel like they can’t fix them, they can’t reach them anymore,” said Ripken, who becomes animated when discussing the foundation, his sparkling blue eyes widening.
He said the parks, built in “tough” places, triggers a clean-up of the area.
”Because it looks so nice, other people in the area get motivated to do nice things,“ said Ripken. ”Once the community sees what you’re putting in there, they embrace it and some magic starts to happen. It truly is transformational.
“We’re not looking for big-league players, although we might find one or two. We’re looking to give the kids an opportunity, a chance. And sports is magical that way.”
Ripken, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, will never stray too far from the foundation whether or not he re-enters Major League Baseball.
There are a lot of people who feel it’s just a matter of time that Ripken will don his number eight uniform once again. It would be tough for the folks in Baltimore to see him wear another team’s uniform but many feel it just might be worth it just to see him back in the game.
Ripken, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head, says he’s not sure if getting dressed in something other than black and orange would be emotional.
“How would it feel to wear a uniform from a team other than the Orioles?,” he asked. “That’s a question I can’t answer. I just don’t know.”
Editing by Frank Pingue