In the top half of the first inning Sunday night, as the Yankees' leadoff man batted, Derek Jeter, the Yankees' 24-year-old shortstop, crouched in the on-deck circle, looking across Camden Yards. He was smiling quizzically at a man in the Orioles' dugout.

Jeter was making eye contact with, and nodding in salute to, a man 14 years his senior, who had not been seated at the beginning of an Orioles home game since Jeter was an 8-year-old prodigy playing sandlot ball. For the first time since May 29, 1982, Cal Ripken was going to sit out a game.By the time the leadoff man grounded out, the 48,013 fans in the stands were buzzing with the recognition that a rookie was playing third base for the Orioles. And the Yankee dugout was seized by a sense of the moment.

The Yankees players were among the very few people in the ballpark who really understand how draining and damaging a 162-game season is, and how astonishing Ripken's 16-season, 2,632-game streak was. So the Yankees stepped in front of their dugout, tipped their caps and applauded until Ripken stepped onto the field, acknowledged the Yankees and the fans, and bade the game go on.

Professional teams sometimes acquire the personalities of their cities, so you might expect New York teams to fall somewhat short of civil. After all, a few years ago, when the New York Mets were lined up for a team photograph, a fight broke out between two teammates.

By their unplanned gallantry - the only genuine sort - the Yankees exemplified the comity that is common in baseball. Those in opposite dugouts have often played their dangerous game together all the way from the lower minor leagues to the big leagues. And Ripken, by the act of ending his consecutive game streak, and by the nonchalance of his way of doing that, exemplified something that baseball, almost uniquely in modern America, values: understatement.

Professional sports, like the rest of American life, is increasingly blighted by athletes' exhibitionism. For example, football features much taunting - end zone dances after touchdowns and struttings around the field after tackles or deflected passes. Baseball has an unwritten common law against such behavior.

That law is occasionally violated, and violations are occasionally punished by pitches thrown instructively close to offenders. But most players conform to that law because they understand how hard their game is and how much failure it inevitably involves.

For the second time in four seasons, the rhythm of Ripken's remarkable career has coincided constructively with the needs of baseball. In 1995, the season after the strike, baseball simply needed someone likable. This year, the need is a matter of nuance, but interesting nonetheless.

This year's home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa has been an inspiriting grace note for a splendid season. Both participants have demonstrated that sportsmanship is not only compatible with professionalism, it is, in baseball, a component of professionalism.

However, the competition between McGwire and Sosa is not really baseball. It has become a spectacle that has distorted the competition in what remains, irreducibly, a team game.

In this tawdry year of our political life, Ripken's muted moment, and the Yankees' graceful participation in it, were welcome reminders of two things often missed amid the carpet-bombing cacophony of saturation journalism about people behaving badly. There is much more to the nation's life than its politics. And the reservoirs of America's everyday decency are deep indeed.

Washington Post Writers Group