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COMMENTARY : Ripken, Maddux and Bradley a Trio to Truly Admire


They've earned our attention:

--Here comes Cal Ripken to remind us that virtue has no expiration date. With his streak he reminds us of Joe Garagiola's love for good ol' country hardball. Boys who would be men and men who would be boys come to the pasture to have at it. They sail cow pies over the fence, they kick rocks out of the infield, and all that matters is this: They come to play some ball.

It's not about stylin' or money or a moment on stage. For every fool who thinks that's what it's about, a thousand men, women and children just want to play country hardball. These are folks who understand the message in those E.F. Hutton commercials when John Houseman says, "They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it."

They understand that Cal Ripken has earned our attention.

Never has he demanded it.

He did his work, did it at a high level of skill, did it every day and did it with no motive other than playing ball the way he thinks it should be played. Almost 10 years ago, Ripken defined himself:

"When I think about baseball, I think about the sport of it, not the glamorous life. I'd like to play every game, every inning, every day for 20 years . . . I'd like for little kids to emulate me. To hear some kid playing and have one say, 'I'm Cal Ripken,' that would be the ultimate degree of success for me."

--Here comes Greg Maddux to show us his game as art. Maybe the best pitcher ever, maybe the best right-hander ever, maybe the best of his generation--and he says: "I don't want to get caught up in all that. It's nice, but it won't make me a better pitcher."

The larger truth is nicer. What Larry Bird did, what Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky did, Greg Maddux does. He sees possibilities no one else sees and he makes them real in ways that create beauty.

"It's a feeling, a reflex," Maddux says of how he chooses which pitch to throw and where to throw it, each decision growing out of the last, each dependent on circumstances that change with every pitch.

"Picasso had it, Maddux has it," says George Zuraw, a veteran scout working for the Mariners. "Some artists will make a brushstroke and stand back and look, 'Is that all right?' Picasso just does it and it's done, a masterpiece. That's Maddux. Before he throws a ball, he knows where it's going. I'm in awe."

Two out of three times on a good day, Maddux says, he throws a pitch how he wants to and where he wants to. Those days he works with the utter arrogance of a Bird scoring from everywhere, and on those days the old pitcher doing Braves telecasts, has a story: "San Francisco, bases loaded, 3-0 count, and Maddux gets a fastball strike, 3-1. Then he comes with a curve the guy can't believe, 3-2. And then what's he do? A change. Stee-rike three. A master."

It has been 35 years since any Braves pitcher did for four years what Maddux has done in the last four. That great man is Warren Spahn, a Hall of Fame left-hander now 74 and mostly grumpy about today's game.

"Pitchers don't pitch the way I think they should," Spahn says. "Hitters have no discipline. Managers have no control of the ballclub. But Maddux, I like him. My kind of guy. Doesn't mouth off much. Classic pitcher. Got all the pitches. The control. In and out. Uses the whole plate. Breaks bats. Lets hitters know he's out there. Lets 'em know he's Greg Maddux."

--Here comes Bill Bradley, the U.S. senator from New Jersey, still moving without the basketball. No one ever moved without the ball much better than the kid from Missouri who did it first at Princeton University and then with the New York Knicks when that team worked with grace, courage and selflessness.

At an early age, Bradley was marked as a phenom in life as much as in basketball. He went from Crystal City, Mo., to Princeton and a Rhodes scholarship. At Princeton they called him Governor, certain he'd become nothing less than governor of Missouri. The Knicks, in their turn, called him president.

David Halberstam once wrote that Bradley "may be a New York-Washington-Oxford sophisticate, but he's still a small-town banker's son from Missouri, and he has the soul of a square. He learned long ago in basketball a basic lesson of politics--that if you do the right thing in the right way, in the end, people will know."

"Besides," Bradley says, "even if they don't know, you know, and that's what counts."

At 15, he heard the old pro Easy Ed Macauley say, "Just remember that if you're not working at your game to the utmost of your ability, there will be someone out there, somewhere with equal ability, who will be working to the utmost of his ability, and he'll have the advantage."

"The important thing about that story," Bradley says, "is the type of young man I was, who would be so totally accepting of words like that and who, hearing them, immediately acted on them."

Soon now, Bradley may announce a campaign for the presidency. It's not the first time he has thought of it, either. As long ago as 1987 he said: "How then shall we Democrats choose our next presidential candidate? Shall it be in a smoke-filled room? Shall it be by brokered convention? Shall it be by a national primary? Personally, I prefer jump shots from the top of the key."

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