For me, it is a very rare thing to legitimately follow athletes, as opposed to teams.
I'm something of a Patriots fan, but as I said, mostly because of the Super Bowl they lost to the Packers... when Drew Bledsoe was still their quarterback.
When Bledsoe got hurt and subsequently left town, I owned a Bledsoe jersey... but my loyalty remained with the Patriots.
I am very sure that when Ray Lewis hangs up his cleats, my loyalty will remain with the Ravens.
Cal Ripken was different. I have no memory of this, but apparently, I used to call him "Cannell" Ripken, for some reason- my 4 and 5 year old self only had one sports team, and remember, in those days the Orioles were respectable.
My dad's first love as a sports fan was baseball, and still is, if you ask him, he'll tell you that he's never truly gotten over the fact that his childhood team, the Colts, play in a different city than his own now. (He remains a Colts fan, much to my disgust.)
But when I was 5, I just rooted for the guy who was a constant, literally, and the guy who I remember as my first sports hero. The one who, at the very beginning of my life, before I have many memories, still made sports an absolutely central part of who I was.
Even as the Orioles faded from excellence, first into mediocrity and then later into baseball hell, my loyalty to Ripken remained, and in the steroid era, he stands as one of those rare athletes never tainted by steroids, never associated with cheating of any kind... and the first sports icon with whom I felt a personal connection.
I did not understand the depth of my loyalty to this man, at first. He retired, I watched his last game, and in his final home game and last he'd ever appear in as an Oriole, watched...as the Red Sox, already eliminated from the playoffs, pitched to Brady Anderson to try and get him out. They did...and Ripken's career ended standing in the on-deck circle.
I've never forgiven the Red Sox for that decision, and while I go to school in Boston country, my hatred for all things related to the Red Sox (Ortiz, Pedroia, Papelbon) they can all go to hell, even though they had nothing to do with this incident.
I hate the Red Sox almost as much as the Steelers, and much of it stems back to this single moment of classless, inconsiderate action- it wouldn't have been a big deal to walk Brady and let Cal hit one more time.
And then...the induction ceremony. I didn't even mark it down on my calendar; when Ripken walked away from baseball, so did I- I have never been much of a fan since; I can't just sell my loyalty to the Orioles, and yet, I am trapped by pathetic attempts of my team to restore some vigor to the franchise... over and over again.
I was so detached from the game that I figured I'd just read about it.
It was one of those moments that makes me a religious man; I happened to turn on the radio of my car while I was driving home from somewhere, but I realized it was the Hall induction ceremony, and the man speaking was Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn was one of the classiest men ever to play the game, and I smiled many times during his speech, and laughed on occasion. I really like the guy.
But he is not Cal. He wasn't the guy I called "Cannel" before I could even speak. He wasn't the guy that made me into and later kept me a baseball fan...by himself.
Ripken's speech will always stay with me, and I had to pull over into the parking lot of a gas station, and just cried. Tears of joy, of nostalgia, of wonder, of PRIDE for my first sports icon.
The guy who played the wrong sport, but will forever stand alone among my personal sports pantheon.
At one point, one of the gas station's employees came over to see what was wrong, after all, I was bawling like a five year old kid.
I opened the window, and all I said was, "Cal's being inducted." The employee, who was about my age, smiled, and he understood.
I never saw the man again, but it was one of those special moments where you KNEW that while he might never have said "Cannel" he probably called him something else. One of those moments that makes me proud of my hometown.