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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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Going and coming -- FOR those who see sports as a metaphor for life, this has been an interesting season here in Washington. I say "sports" advisedly, since the stories are largely about sports careers -- specifically, professional sports careers -- and not the games themselves.

First, by all accounts, is the departure of Cal Ripken from the Baltimore Orioles after two decades. Ripken has had a mediocre season, by his standards, and exercised good judgment in announcing his retirement. But his fans are wholly indifferent to such details. He gets a standing ovation just for coming up to bat. People beg him to stay, hold signs, slip him notes, and interrupt his speeches with cries of "Don't go!" Both Washington newspapers have published special supplements on the event -- "Farewell, Cal" (Times), "Iron Icon" (Post) -- and the Post section had a touching photograph of a boy, overcome with tears, being comforted by Ripken after autographing a baseball.

From whence does all this come? You could argue that baseball fans in Washington and Baltimore haven't had much to cheer about in recent years, and Ripken's achievements have been a lifeline to grasp. For his part, the Iron Man is mystified by all the adulation. Ripken has wondered out loud whether the emotion is for him as an individual, or has some indefinable significance: "That is one of those things I still have to figure out about this whole process," he says.

Some would argue that baseball, the onetime national pastime, tends to pluck the mystic chords of memory in ways that football and basketball do not. There was nothing like this when Joe Namath or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired. Then again, in the realm of professional athletes, Cal Ripken is the closest you get to a sterling character. While he is regarded as something of a loner on the Orioles, he is genuinely courteous to fans, gallant on the field, and (so far as we know) leads a blameless private life. Indeed, the record for which he is best known -- 2,632 consecutive games -- is a testament to dedication as much as talent.

Meanwhile, as Cal Ripken heads for the exit, Michael Jordan has chosen to emerge from retirement (again) in the uniform of Washington's pro basketball team, the Wizards. I may well be the only living American who has never seen Michael Jordan play a game -- either live or on TV -- and cannot pretend to be excited about this news. I would rather watch cockfighting than the NBA any day. But it would take a heart of stone not to be amused by the spectacle of Jordan purchasing shares in the Wizards, arriving in Washington as a much-advertised "director of basketball operations," and then gradually trading his Italianate suits for a uniform.

The sports writer John Feinstein wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently that it is often difficult for famous athletes to surrender the limelight, and that is probably the case with Jordan, who quit in 1999 while still a great player. Cal Ripken has been in a slow decline in recent years, and perceived it was time to go; Jordan, by contrast, walked off the court in the knowledge he had some good seasons left to play.

In Washington, however, he has his work cut out for him: The Wizards (19-63 last season) are indescribably inept, and Jordan is not young and, presumably, a little rusty. He will certainly play to the financial benefit of the Wizards -- people have been camping out for season tickets to watch a team that seldom filled half its seats -- but at some peril to his reputation. Looming over every professional athlete who can't let go are the spectres of has-beens from the past: Joe Louis stepping into the pro wrestling ring, Babe Ruth in a Boston Braves uniform, Muhammad Ali stinging like a butterfly.

Saddest and most instructive of all, perhaps, is the case of Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, a 29-year-old Czech, is generally regarded as the best player in hockey, and when he was acquired by the Washington Capitals this summer, it threw the Capitals (who are nearly as bad as the Wizards) into instant contention for the Stanley Cup. The problem is that hardly anyone in Washington pays any attention to the Capitals, or to ice hockey generally. I am exaggerating, of course; but if you examine the sports pages during the past month or two you would find thousands of column inches on Air Jordan and the Iron Man, and not a syllable about the best hockey player in the world, now resident in Washington, D.C.

In a sense, this reversal of fortune has prepared Jaromir Jagr well for life in the nation's capital. Take the Clintons, for example. The 55-year-old former President has yet to figure out what to do with the balance of his life, and was last seen working the crowd at the memorial service for victims of terrorism at the National Cathedral. The former First Lady got herself elected to the U.S. Senate -- and from New York, no less -- but has been swept from media attention by the events of Sept. 11. Politics, like the sporting life, is sometimes unfair.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal