Today I turn 51. It's not a momentous birthday, nothing like my Sweet 16 (which wasn't), my 18th (I could vote for Reagan!), my 40th (middle age, if I intended to live to 80, which is just feasible), or even 50 (I have no hopes of living to 100 — so, hello, downward slope).

This is a relatively uneventful birthday, steeped in the festive anticipation of Christmas and the hopes of a snowy holiday — if only Cecily Tynan would wipe that blinding-white grin off of her face while announcing 60 degree temperatures. (And by the way, lose the sleeveless dresses, lady. It's December.)

But every birthday, I become reflective and take stock of what's happened in the preceding 12 months. This year, I had some momentous personal changes like many of us. Still, the thing that was most jarring was a loss of innocence that, even at this advanced age, I cling to with unseemly desperation.

I choose to believe that we are heroic or that, at least, we have the potential for heroism buried inside. While for some that quality exists beneath Mesozoic layers of rock, others seem to have easy access to it. So when those others stoop and fall, Icarus flying far too close to the sun, it pulls at the heart.

Heroes can be personal, or they can be public figures who draw you into their circle with a cult of charisma. That's the way it always was with Carlos Ruiz. The Phillies' catcher was (and still is) my favorite player, a compact turbo of a man who resembles in features and temperament many of my Latino clients. You see the Mayan traces in his noble face. I loved watching him hustle his way around the bases, hitting the occasional home run, and saving many an otherwise sketchy game with his magnificent glove.

Chooch was all that. So when it emerged that he had taken illegal substances, it was a sock to the gut. Not Carlos! Of course, we have to expect in this post-Bonds-McGwire era that these things will happen. Only the truly naïve believe that Lou Gherig's voice still echoes in the stands. But something twists in the soul when you hear that your hero is human, even though you knew he had a right to be all along.

Then there was the Philadelphia Traffic Court scandal, which isn't as terrible as the revelation that judges in Luzerne County were playing chess with the lives of juveniles, but which nonetheless makes you question your law degree. I grew up around men (and a few women) who may have been imperfect humans but who still regarded the law as a sacred avocation, not a way to make a quick buck. Sadly, it seems that some judges and lawyers believe they can game the system with impunity — and bring their family members along for the ride.

Another devastating blow was the realization that David Petraeus is not, after all, a god. His dalliance with Paula Broadwell was only the tip of an iceberg made of hubris. He could have been Marcus Aurelius, a warrior of valor and a man of honor. Instead he sold that honor for some pleasure and, in the process, placed himself — and us — at exactly the risk every clandestine operative needs to avoid: blackmail. From patriot games, to patriot shame.

So, it has been a tough year for the wide-eyed naïf. And yet, there was a sliver of hope for the jaded. When a New York City police officer knelt down to place boots on the bare feet of a homeless man in Times Square, and did it under what he thought was a cloak of anonymity, he proved that sometimes we look for heroes in the wrong places. They're not on playing fields. They're not on elevated benches. They're not even in the halls of power.

Sometimes, they're on dark and grimy street corners, right before our unwary eyes.

And that's something I can celebrate.

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and an occasional contributor to NewsWorks.