This morning I was listening to 98Rock’s morning show, and host Mickey Cucchiella was discussing a wide arrange of topics with sportscaster Keith Mills (also of WBAL) during his (Mills’) hourly segment. They were discussing the horse Secretariat being a “freak of nature,” and revolutionizing horse racing forever. They went on to talk about how Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles is also a guy who revolutionized his sport, and they also threw Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts into that mix.
That led me to thinking about Baltimore’s role in the sports world in general. I’ve seen my old man cry on three different occasions thus far in life; two of them were when his parents died, and the other was when the Colts left Baltimore. That’s a sentiment that was probably shared by most Baltimoreans at the time, and much of that was due in part to the Unitas era (and to a lesser extent Bert Jones). That can be traced back to the 1958 NFL Title game, which is something that needs no description to Baltimore fans. As a result of that one game, Johnny Unitas revolutionized the game of football by revolutionizing it’s most important position. Nowadays it seems that teams go up and down the field all the time at a feverish pace, however until that game nobody had ever seen a quarterback moving the ball like that…almost literally with no time left on the clock. That cemented the Colts and the city of Baltimore into NFL history forever, and I would submit that Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the ’58 title game is the single greatest moment in that history.
The Orioles and the city of Baltimore were cemented into MLB history by Cal Ripken Jr, albeit in a different manner. First off, the great tradition of baseball in the city was already there as a result of the great Orioles teams of the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. However what Cal achieved by breaking Lou Gerhig’s consecutive games played record in September of 1995 set a standard for simply doing your job and doing it well. It’s easy enough to say that all the guy did was show up every day. But how many of us do that quite literally EVERY DAY, and take the type of punishment that professional athletes have to endure? Furthermore, in order to play in an eventual 2,632 consecutive games, you have to be pretty good.
Having said that, the consecutive games played streak in and of itself did not revolutionize the game. However as people often say, timing is everything. In 1994 we saw the baseball season end in August due to a players strike. The end of the season, and eventually the World Series ended up being canceled, and the strike even ate up the first six weeks of the 1995 season. Baseball’s popularity was at an all-time low, and for those of us who remember that probably recall that there were even some people wondering if that would spell the end of professional baseball at some point. Then at the end of that season Cal Ripken Jr. came along and broke the consecutive games played streak, generating an interest in America’s pastime once again. As people commonly like to say, Cal Ripken “saved baseball.” People got behind the streak and they wanted to see history made, which brought them back to the sport when it deserately needed fans. So yes, all he did was show up on a daily basis. But that type of dedication saved the sport that we all love so much.
I suppose that my point in using Unitas and Ripken is that the city of Baltimore as a whole has contributed in so many ways to the history of sports in America. And I’m not talking squarely about your run-of-the-mill great players, or even championships. I’m not sure that there’s another city out that that can claim a football and baseball hero as having revolutionized their respective sports or positions. And the fact that the Ravens are now the defending world champions allows Baltimore football as a whole to bow once again before the sports world. The same can also be said of the current Orioles, who are the heirs to Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Eddie Murray, and of course the great Cal Ripken Jr. All of these arguments are very relative and very subjective. But again, there’s a big difference between just a regular superstar, and one who revolutionized a game or a position. Baltimore can claim two in two different sports, as football and baseball owe the likes of Johnny Unitas and Cal Ripken Jr. a debt of gratitude
For the record, I would put Secretariat up there as one of the greatest athletes of all time. In a special that was run on ESPN this past weekend commemorating the 40th anniversary of his triple crown, a writer who covered the Belmont Stakes that year said that he was literally afraid that the jockey was going to kill the horse given how fast he was going. It became obvious that he was going to win the race (and thus the triple crown) on the back stretch; winning a race running away is one thing, but…winning by 31 lengths is another story. So let me say…Greatest. Race horse. Ever.