CAL JUST A SHORT STOP FROM MAKING HISTORY

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BALTIMORE-It's Streak Week, and 10-year-old Greg DeSocio has joined the two dozen or so people gathered on Eutaw Street, pressed up against the gate nearest center field at Camden Yards.

A Little League catcher from Syracuse, N.Y., Greg is wearing a New York Yankees cap. But now, 5 hours before the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A's take the field, Greg is hoping to glimpse his favorite player, the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr.

Greg's father, Mark, is impressed not only by Mr. Ripken's ability to play every day, but also by the player's unassuming demeanor. "He just seems like a regular guy," said Mr. DeSocio, 40, who operates computers for a frozen-food company.

"Regular guy" Ripken is the improbable center of major attention. Time, Newsweek and People are all said to be working on possible cover stories. More than 350 media credentials have been issued for the Orioles' Sept. 6 game against California-when Mr. Ripken is expected to play in his 2,131st consecutive game, eclipsing Lou Gehrig's record.

In an era of shameless self-promotion in sports and elsewhere, fans-and now marketers-are embracing Mr. Ripken as the embodiment of the traditional American work ethic.

Other players may make headlines by jumping teams for more money, by getting arrested on felony charges or by a swaggering style of play. Mr. Ripken just goes out to shortstop and performs every day at a top level.

"Cal's lack of flamboyance is one of the attractive points about him," said Kurt Ritter, marketing manager-trucks for Chevrolet, discussing why the General Motors Corp. division has signed up Mr. Ripken as an ad spokesman in an under $1 million deal.

"There's no overt effort to create controversy or draw attention to himself."

Chevy is the first national marketer in a non-sports category to sign Mr. Ripken, but it's not the first to try.

Early in his baseball days, Jockey International proposed an endorsement contract. Mr. Ripken turned down the deal, but about the same time did sign up with the Middle Atlantic Milk Marketing Association.

"If I didn't feel right about it, I wouldn't do it just for the sake of the money," Mr. Ripken said.

The Chevy deal has been percolating since the 1991 All-Star Game, when Mr. Ritter represented Chevrolet in presenting the MVP trophy to Mr. Ripken.

After meeting the player's family, Mr. Ritter decided Mr. Ripken was a perfect fit with the Chevrolet truck ad theme "Like a rock."

Mr. Ripken says he's comfortable endorsing Chevrolet because he already owns a Suburban, Chevrolet's full-size sport-utility vehicle.

"My daughter [Rachel] always chooses to go to school in that. She pretends like it's a bus, and she sits way in back and calls me the bus driver," Mr. Ripken said.

Dozens of other marketers recently have made sponsorship proposals, said Ira Rainess, general counsel for the Tufton Group, the Lutherville, Md.-based sports marketing group that represents Mr. Ripken. But only a select few will be approved, Mr. Rainess said.

"A lot of companies, their message is pizzazz and flair. Those companies aren't us," Mr. Rainess said. "Cal's more traditional, dependable, down to earth."

A flurry of marketing activity is being built around the record-breaking game.

General Mills' Wheaties will feature the Orioles player on Wheaties boxes. Nike will update its downtown Ripken outdoor board to read, "Death. Taxes. Cal Ripken Jr." The marketer's agency, Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., has prepared a 60-second tribute to Mr. Ripken, expected to run on the ESPN telecast of the Sept. 6 game. Chevrolet agency Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., is preparing congratulatory ads to run Sept. 7 in USA Today and other newspapers.

The Orioles are spending some $100,000 on giveaways and ceremonies during Streak Week, the seven days leading up to the record breaker. The best touch is the huge banner on Camden Yards Warehouse, beyond the right-field wall, displaying the current number of games in The Streak.

When the game becomes official (in the middle or end of the fifth inning, depending on the score), the number is changed. At that moment, fans rise for an ovation, as Mr. Ripken acknowledges it by swiping at the brim of his cap.

But one wonders: Can Cal Ripken Jr. save baseball? And does baseball deserve to be saved?

In a year marked by fan anger toward the game after a lengthy strike, Major League Baseball hasn't been able to put its feuding aside long enough to figure out how to tap into the wellspring of good will for the Baltimore player.

The pursuit of The Streak is one of the few bright spots in a gloomy season, but baseball's leadership seems oblivious to the idea of using the Orioles' player to market the game.

Mr. Rainess said his client is working with Major League Baseball on some PSAs regarding Lou Gehrig's disease.

"From the standpoint of promoting the overall game of baseball, that's something they haven't really come to us about. We're willing to help out any way we can," Mr. Rainess said.

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Cal Ripken Jr.

BIRTHDATE: Aug. 24, 1960, in Havre de Grace, Md.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Baltimore Orioles shortstop since 1982. Won American League Most Valuable Player awards in 1983 and 1991, All-Star Game MVP in 1991. With wife Kelly, in 1992 established the Kelly & Cal Ripken Jr. Foundation, which last year gave $76,000 to a variety of charitable causes.

PERSONAL: Married to Kelly, two children.

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