In Maryland, there were only a few things kids wanted to be when they grew up.
The president of the United States. An astronaut. A teacher. A veterinarian.
All of those were popular, but not quite as popular as the one all the boys picked: Cal Ripken Jr.
You may think I meant everybody wanted to be a professional baseball player. What I meant is everybody wanted to be Cal Ripken Jr.
As kids, we knew there was no better ballplayer alive. I was coming of age just as the Iron Man played his most famous game: No. 2,131, breaking Lou Gehrig's record. Every would-be Orioles shortstop in grade school tried copying his sidearm throwing motion with varying degrees of success.
I think even some of this youthful spirit rubbed off on adults in the community. They loved Cal because he went to work every day, just like anybody else.
I think of these days as I consider how age, technology or society itself has moved me well past the idolatry of sports heroes. Although I still have tremendous respect for physical achievements and sporting accomplishments that's the nature of my job it doesn't command the same unconditional adoration it once did.
The off-field discussion of athletes has intensified in today's media environment, and it's hard to ignore when you consider the number of Detroit Lions who have been arrested this offseason.
We're addicted to the Chad Ochocincos of this landscape, the Metta World Peaces. Their antics are often more entertaining, or more newsworthy, than their athletic accomplishments.
Even someone such as Tim Tebow, who many folks will agree is a good role model, is more famous as a novelty than as an athlete.
I've taken some time to read Ball Four by Jim Bouton, the book a lot of sportswriters will point to as the first legitimate look behind the curtain at pro athletes. It describes baseball players as grumpy, insecure and flawed human, if anything.
It's funny to me that such a book could have once been so controversial. The commissioner of baseball himself asked Bouton to say what he had written wasn't true, which he declined.
Today, a book like Ball Four, as wonderful and genuine as it is, might be just another drop in the bucket. Bouton wrote in his most recent introduction to his book: "There seems to be a contest to see which book can be most shocking."
You could say the same thing is true of our news cycle, a self-propelling upward climb of scandals and crimes. It's tough when faced with a question such as that of Lance Armstrong: Because someone cheated to win races, does that take away the good he's done?
I don't profess to know the answers. It just seems like those times of sports icons as role models or as idols are passing quickly. We live in a world where we realize that athletes are just as human as anyone else.
It's something I have made peace with. But that doesn't mean I don't lie back on my couch sometimes and watch Cal's old games.
Just because the times have moved on doesn't mean you can't enjoy the past.