Sunday, July 29, 2007

Iron Men

In the summer of 1995, Cal Ripken Jr., veteran shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, was closing in on a record – his 2,131st consecutive game, which would surpass the mark set by Lou Gehrig more than half a century before, and make him baseball's undisputed Iron Man.

Forty miles down the road, in Washington DC, another distinguished, silver-haired gentleman – a man named Ed Gottfried – was going for his own endurance record. He sought to make it to my sister's October wedding in New York, before the cancer that took his stomach and was now devouring his liver would finally take him, too.

I never called Ed my stepfather. Popular culture long ago killed any positive notions associated with the title “step.” Besides, he and my mother married when I was an adult, so I didn't grow up in his home and he didn't raise me. But they were together for many years before their marriage so I knew him well. He was family, but better. Like the kind of person you’d have in your family if you got to choose family members.

Raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents from Hungary, Ed was utterly gregarious in that quintessential New York way. When he and my Mom bought a house in DC’s DuPont Circle neighborhood, Ed’s main requirement was that it had to have a front stoop. The kind he enjoyed as a kid. A place where he could sit in the warm afternoon sun, have a beer and chat with the neighbors and random passersby.

Ed was the kind of guy who made friends everywhere. One time in a restaurant, he was chatting with a couple at a nearby table, as he would often do. Apparently the woman had this dessert that Ed could not stop admiring. Taking the hint, she offered him a taste. Now if it were you or I, we’d politely decline, of course. But not Ed. He gladly took spoon in hand and took his taste from a complete stranger’s plate!

Life was to be experienced, and Ed knew few experiences equal the perfect dessert.

Ed had arrived in Washington after a stint in the army, called to service like so many other young people of his generation by Kennedy-era idealism. He worked for the government, traveled the world and, after 30 years, retired at the relatively young age of 55. He did not slow down. He launched a consulting business, taught English to Latino immigrants, volunteered on political campaigns, took classes, read voraciously, went on road trips, loved the opera.

He still arose every day at 5:30 am. When I asked him why – why he didn't just relax and sleep in – he said, "Because I can't wait to get out of bed every day. There's so much to do!"

As a teenager and young adult, I accompanied Ed many times to Baltimore Orioles games, where we had the opportunity to see Cal Ripken in action. The Yankees were Ed’s team, but he settled happily for the nearest American League franchise, just for the love of the game – being out there, at the park, enjoying the spectacle on a perfect summer day. In fact, one of several letters he had published in the Washington Post was a short, single-paragraph paean to summer, baseball and beer.

On September 5, 1995, Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record. The hometown crowd at Camden Yards honored him with a 22-minute standing ovation. And he didn’t stop there. He would remain in the lineup every day for another three years, ultimately appearing in 2,632 consecutive games over 19 seasons.

To give some perspective, the third-place record-holder, after Lou Gehrig, played in only half as many games. He retired in 1925. And the leader among players now active has a mere 434 consecutive games under his belt.

So Ripken’s epic accomplishment is as close as you’ll come to a record that is “unbreakable” – until such time as ballplayers get outfitted with bionic limbs. Or perhaps, more aptly, bionic character. Ever self-effacing, Ripken brushed it off, saying all he did was go to work every day, like millions of others.

Home run battles, base stealing percentages, ace pitching – they’re all exciting things to follow. But there's something important to be said – most especially in these times of insta-fame and the elevation to a virtue of getting something for nothing – there is a lot to be said for the steady, quiet focus and dedication it takes to show up every day and do your job.

I was so happy that Ed lived to see Ripken break the record. But in his own quest to return to his beloved New York one more time and dance with my mother at her daughter’s wedding, Ed didn’t make it. By the time of the October wedding, he was too ill to travel. Days later, during her honeymoon, he was dead, just eight months after his original diagnosis.

The last time I saw him, in August, he was alarmingly underweight but truly happy – partly, I think, because of the drugs he was given to help get him through the day, but also, I know, because he was headed that afternoon to Camden Yards to see his Orioles play.

This summer, Cal Ripken was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ed has been gone for 12 years. But of course, the dead never truly leave us. In my mind and sometimes in my dreams, he's as alive as he ever was.

I wish he were around to see the person I’ve become today. Partly because I'm not so proud of the person I was then. But also because Ed, a true adventurer at heart, would unquestionably be my biggest fan.

As is the custom in our family, I never told him I loved him.

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