The Day I Met Cal Ripken Jr.

A friend of mine asked me to write down this story a while back. With baseball season coming to an end, it seemed appropriate timing. This one’s for you Drake.

I didn’t grow up a baseball-lover, although I played softball in middle school. The day I caught an outfield ball with my un-gloved hand, I decided my career in the sport was over.

There was no such thing as professional sports in my hometown, although we claim pride for being the base of the Louisville Slugger. I attended a few minor league games as a kid and still have a flag for the Louisville Redbirds (now the Louisville Bats and a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds or so Google tells me).

Nonetheless there were plenty of baseball lovers. The first time I came across Cal Ripken Jr. was in elementary school. I was at some classmate’s birthday party at a roller skating ring. I had a crush on another boy there. I don’t recall his name, only that he was wearing a Ken Griffey Jr. t-shirt. So I referred to him as Griffey.

Nothing ever came of it. I don’t think we once said hi to one another. All I knew was that Griffey was some famous baseball player and because he had Jr. in the name, and Cal Ripken was also famous, I used to get the two confused. Yes, baseball lovers, feel free to berate me on this one. I have no shame.

Baltimore

But fast forward a few years, I was in graduate school in Baltimore, where apparently a famous baseball legend still lives. And to demonstrate my lack of baseball awareness (even though I dated a huge Reds fan in college and went to a ton of games), I had no idea who the O’s were until I moved to Baltimore in 2010 (and to be honest I didn’t know who the Ravens were either).

And while the O’s grew on me during my four-year stay in Baltimore, I had no idea of the famous baseball player who once dominated the local field. He was obviously retired by the time I arrived.

While in school, I worked many jobs in the restaurant industry. I started out as host and gradually moved up to server status. Well, while in my host phase, I manned the front desk so-to-speak at a local breakfast/brunch spot. It’s well-loved by locals, including Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (I eventually figured out who he was although I never met him).

The Meeting

So on a rather slow weekday, I was hunched over the host stand pretending to care about a job that forced me to smile on a daily basis and only paid $10 per hour. A middle-aged bald man came into the restaurant. He towered over me and my host stand. I greeted him with my usual fake smile and pleasant demeanor. When I asked how many in his party, he asked if he could be seated in one of the booths in the side room.

On weekdays, especially with little staff and a slow lunch crowd, we never sat anyone in the side room. I knew the peak lunch period was about to hit and looked around at the few servers we had on schedule. Some of them hadn’t even shown up given the lack of a morning crowd. I was the only host there and had been there since the restaurant opened at 7am.

I looked at this man who showed little facial expression and said, “I’m sorry. The side room is closed. But I can seat you anywhere in the main room here.”

He gave me a slight smile and seemed a bit taken aback.

“Believe me I always sit in the side room,” he said. It looked as if he was trying to hold back a laugh.

I felt immediately annoyed. Who did he think he was? I dealt with customers like this all the time and was now at the point where I refused to take any flack. If I said the side room wasn’t open, then it wasn’t open.

“We just don’t have any servers in the side room. It’s not open on weekdays,” I said. I don’t remember what he said then only that he was insistent he sit in a booth in the side room.

So I sighed, grabbed a menu, and led him to the first booth. I handed it to him with an obviously annoyed look on my face.

“Enjoy your meal. A server will be with you shortly.” I’m not sure if this is what I actually said only that I said it in my least enthusiastic tone ever.

One of our best servers immediately approached him and took his order. I went to the kitchen to grab another cup of coffee. The day already seemed too long.

But one of the other servers approached me and said, “Tracy, do you realize who that was?”

“I don’t know. Some rude guy who wanted to sit in the side room. I didn’t feel like fighting.”

A crowd of servers was gathering around me now, and they all laughed. I could see my manager chuckling to himself in the background.

The same server shouted to another server, “Tracy has no idea who that was!”

I felt embarrassed. Did I miss something?

“That was Cal Ripken Jr.,” they finally told me. “He comes here all the time. Megan takes care of him, and he always sits in the side room.”

They were all smiling at me, and I smiled back.

“Well, I grew up in Kentucky. We didn’t have professional baseball.” They seemed to accept that excuse.

When I got back to the host stand, I glanced at the side room. He was sitting there quite contently and seemed to be fine. He probably found it amusing that someone in Baltimore didn’t recognize him. Maybe he had someone come eat lunch with him? Maybe he sat there alone? I don’t really remember.

But I was too embarrassed to approach him and apologize. I didn’t technically do anything wrong. I was just doing my job. And that was the last time I saw Cal Ripken Jr. I only stayed five months before I moved on to my next restaurant gig.

And that was before I had a smartphone so no pics, just a story I was embarrassed to share until now.

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