Dark clouds hang over many quarters of the American sports scene: baseball's all-time homerun hitter, indicted for lying about using performance-enhancing drugs; track and cycling stars, forced to return world medals for failing drug tests; a professional basketball referee with a gambling problem, pleading guilty to betting on games he officiated.
But through it all, one sports figure has risen to historic stature, even six years into his retirement. He is Cal Ripken, Jr.
"We will never see anything like this again. And he deserves every bit of it," said a sportscaster on September 6th, 1995, as Cal Ripken broke a major-league baseball record that was thought to be unachievable, playing in his 2,131st straight game, all for the Orioles team in Baltimore, near the small town in Maryland where he grew up.
Well over half those games (including each and every moment of every game during his first five years in the major leagues) were spent at shortstop, the sport's most difficult and demanding position.
From the moment Ripken broke New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record, the achievement has been recognized, simply, as "the Streak," and Ripken himself as "the Ironman." Modest as usual, he told the crowd that night, "You are challenged by the game of baseball to do your very best, day in and day out. And that's all I've ever tried to do. Thank you."
But it's not just because Cal Ripken had great endurance and skill as a player that thousands stood and shouted "We want Cal! We want Cal!" the night he broke baseball's longevity record. They cheered his athletic achievement, as well as his sportsmanship and humility.
The nearly universal respect for this man made that moment when he set the endurance record among the most memorable in recent American sports. Teammates pushed him onto the field and insisted he circle the stadium, shaking hands with fans. "Now if that doesn't make you cry, get excited, give you goosebumps, then check your pulse," observed one broadcaster who was there.
It was typical of the man that his first act after he retired in 2001 was to establish a youth baseball complex near his hometown. And he began to write, first baseball instructional books, then a children's book on how to get over the bumps along life's road.
Ripken says he learned to play sports fiercely but honorably from his father, who for a time was also his manager with the Orioles. From Cal Sr., he says, he learned to respect teammates, umpires, and opponents. He stated, "Values and principles, and the consistency of having one's parents put them into you, that's the basis in which you make decisions for the rest of your life. A good sense of right and wrong, and a good sense of how you deal with people, I think, is a great starting point."
Earlier this year, when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ripken received the third-most votes in history. "I'm not the Ironman that people say I am," he told reporters. "I'm not a superhuman. I work hard. I try to keep myself in shape. I have a great desire and a great passion to do it. There's a lot of factors that figure in to playing every single day for 17 years."
In August of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Cal Ripken had been named an unpaid special envoy to travel the world, promoting baseball and American values. "It is only fitting that the face of our national pastime would be one of the faces that America shows the world as our next public diplomacy envoy," she said. "He truly exemplifies America at its best, our aspirations to be a better nation and to help build a better world."
Only one other American sports figure, Olympic skating star Michele Kwan, has ever been appointed to such a special ambassadorial post. In late October, Ripken left on his first mission, to China. He spent ten days visiting with sports officials and young people in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. He talked about baseball and demonstrated the game.
Before he left this country, he told listeners to VOA's Talk to America program, "My life was so full of sport, and I've learned so many different lessons, and it's brought joy to my life that I want to share that and spread that around. My expectations are no more than trying to share experiences and bring a smile to someone's face and try to have them understand the magic of sport, and trying to help them love it the way that I did."
Now 47 years old, Cal Ripken, Jr. insists he did nothing more as a player than go to work each day, try his best, and honor baseball and its fans. "I'm no ironman," he insists. If I can do it, somebody else can." But on that point nobody seems to agree with him.