In the 7th grade, I was obsessed with baseball. Like all the other 7th grade boys that have ever existed in the world, I was less interested in my math homework and more concerned with the batting average of Juan Gonzalez. (.310 in 1993 with 46 home runs-the guy could RAKE it.) I was a Baltimore Orioles fan, and there wasn’t anything that looked more regal to me than the Orioles uniforms. White jerseys, with Orioles written in script across the front, they were stop-traffic awesome to me. And specifically, #8. Cal. Ripken. Junior. There were posters on my wall, Wheaties boxes on my dresser, and to that point, I’d managed to get every Cal Ripken baseball card that existed. There were hundreds of them. I woke up in the morning wondering what he had done the night before, since I was usually in bed by the time the games ended. In my house, he was just Cal.
There was no way I’d get control of the main television in the house, so I holed up in my parents room watching games on a small television, with my baseball glove on. This was my existence. Some time around the winter of 1993, I managed to get an address for Cal Ripken’s home after a trip to the library. And as soon as I realized the wonders of the US postal system, I put a 1991 Topps Cal Ripken baseball card in an envelope, sent it off with an autograph request, convinced it would return in a week. My parents tried hiding their skepticism, but I knew. They were encouraging, telling me that of course Cal will sign the card, and that of course it will come back in a week. But they knew. They didn’t say it, but I knew. Good luck with that, son. My plan was foolproof though, because after all, it was the offseason. What else did Cal Ripken have to do but sit around and field autograph requests from 7th graders all over the country? My timing was everything. I’ll show them.
Weeks passed. Winter turned to spring. Spring training began and I checked the mail every day finding only coupons, flyers, and mail not addressed to me. With each passing day, my hope began to diminish, but it never disappeared. And every night I watched those same Orioles, and I watched Cal, wondering if he’d gotten my card, with his address scrawled on the front in pencil. And whenever I began to give up hope, he’d hit a home run or go 3 for 4 with two RBI’s, I’d forget about it, and all would be right with my 7th grade world.
One afternoon in the middle of the school year, I came home, and before I started my homework, my mom pointed to an envelope on the table. I never got mail. 7th graders don’t get mail. But this afternoon, it was different. It was simply addressed “Andrew Iden” with my address written out on the front. And as I opened the envelope, there was a feeling of euphoria that I hadn’t experienced before. There in the envelope was the baseball card I’d sent away months ago. And in blue marker, splashed across the front of the card, was the name. The signature. Oh, the signature. Cal. Ripken. Junior. It was otherworldly. There was no note, no accompanying letter, nothing. There was a certain beauty in that, because the signature said everything. I’m not sure what happened the rest of the evening, but the card never left my sight. My parents didn’t say it, but I think they were as shocked as I was. Good luck with that, son.
The next morning, I woke up and looked to make sure the card hadn’t been taken overnight. And as I packed for school, I faced a moment that would haunt me for years. Of course I had to take the card to school. Of course the entire 7th grade class needed to know what I possessed. I was IT. I put the card in the front pocket of my backpack, headed off to school with what was and would still be, my most prized possession. You’ll notice the past tense. This is one of those stories.
Billy Harper wasn’t a good kid. A daily discipline problem, he spent most of his time in detention, and looking back now, he almost certainly had a tough time at home. It explains why he lacked any moral compass and in one swift act, pulled the card from my backpack when my back was turned, slid it into his pocket, and took off with it during recess. As I turned around, and caught him in mid-act, I knew what he’d done. I knew what he’d stolen, and in a split second, overcome with confusion, heartbreak and anger, I did what any 12-year-old would do. I told the teacher. Clearly annoyed, Mr. Thompson asked Billy if he took the card, Billy denied it, and that was the end of it. Billy was a rough kid, and I certainly wasn’t going to take things into my own hands. The scales of justice were certainly not tipped in my favor. In fact, there were no scales of justice here at all. I stood on the playground dumbfounded and confused. And there, in big bright shiny lights, was my first indication that life is in fact, not fair. As I walked to my mother’s office after school, heartbroken and in an unconscionable state of despair, I began to cry. I’d held it together throughout the day, but the weight had become to great. For a fleeting moment, I owned the holiest of grails in my 12-year-old world. And like that, it was gone. Poof. Billy Harper had ripped me of happiness, stripped me of pride, and most importantly, made me feel like a fool.
I rehashed the story to my mom through a foggy haze of heartbreak, tears, and snot. As she looked at me with equal parts sorrow and sternness, she explained to me that my decision to take the card to school was a choice rife with consequence. And now, I’d have to live with that consequence. She was against me, I was sure of it. I stood sobbing, and as far as I was concerned, my mom had failed to see the true tragedy here. She was of course, right. As she always is.
11 years later, I still wasn’t over The Theft. I know, I know. Get over it, Andrew. I was a grown man, and the thought of what happened that day still would give me an uneasy feeling when it crossed my mind. Through circumstances of my job, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet Cal Ripken. I thought a lot about that day in 7th grade, and whether meeting Cal Ripken would be the antidote that would allow me to shut the door on Billy Harper. As I stood there shaking Cal’s hand, I realized that indeed life is fair. Because somewhere, Billy Harper was probably struggling. I’m not sure how, or where, but Billy was likely having a rough go of it in his adult life. The playground injustice had gnawed at me for over a decade, and I’d found closure. I told Cal what he had meant to me as a kid, and he looked me right in the eye and simply said “Thanks Andrew.” Was it his standard, canned answer to the thousands of 30-year-old men who have said the same thing? Probably. But it seemed genuine to me. 11 years later, I’d gotten the note that he hadn’t written in that envelope. This moment was mine. And it wasn’t Billy Harper’s.