Like a plague, the major league baseball strike has infected everyone with an interest in the game, even that most indomitable of spirits, Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. He is the big leaguer whose loss—the end of his consecutive-game streak—would be most heartbreaking should the dispute between owners and players disrupt the start of the 1995 season. Normally impervious to distraction, robotic in efficiency and analysis, an iron man with an iron will, Ripken last week admitted that the work stoppage, which began on Aug. 12, is wearing on him, too.
For Ripken, opening day of the baseball season each year is Jan. 1, the first day of his intense preparation for the upcoming campaign. But so far this year, he says, "it hasn't been the same. The motivation has been down." While his regimented workout schedule is more maniacal than ever, he says, "You know it's anything but normal. You put in the sweat, make the commitment—I do it because I love doing it—but at the end of the day you wonder, Am I doing it for the same...the same...I can't even think of the word."
Ripken isn't the only major leaguer at a loss to explain what looms in the weeks, perhaps months, to come. With owners going ahead with their plan to open spring training—and, in all likelihood, the regular season—with replacement players, every big leaguer has been affected, and many minor leaguers may soon be as well. As the cases of Ripken and five others interviewed by SI indicate, some players are facing tough career decisions.
Ripken, for one, has tried hard to keep the labor turmoil from penetrating his zone of concentration. On Aug. 19, a week after the strike began, he vowed to be better prepared than any other player in the event the dispute was settled quickly. Every day for almost a month Ripken repaired to his gymnasium at his home in Reisterstown, Md., for a workout designed to keep all facets of his game sharp. He hit for 30 minutes in the batting cage; practiced making the double play; tagged out imaginary runners, banging his glove against the floor to toughen his hands; angled the pitching machine so it fired one-hop shots at him; rigged his oscillating tennis-ball machine to fire a ground ball every 11 seconds, first to his backhand, then to his glove hand; took a bucket of baseballs out to his yard and played long toss alone; put on his spikes and sprinted, so he wouldn't lose the feeling of running on grass. Then, on Sept. 14, the season was canceled.
He picked up the routine again on Jan. 1, even though there was no negotiated settlement in sight. Spring training is scheduled to open on Feb. 22 for players other than pitchers and catchers, but Ripken says that if the strike is still on, he will remain loyal to the union and not report to camp or play in replacement games. Oriole owner Peter Angelos states adamantly that he will not field a replacement team, partly because Ripken's consecutive-game streak of 2,009—122 short of Lou Gehrig's record—might then be jeopardized. It was announced last week that American League president Gene Budig will have the authority to decide whether replacement games without Ripken would constitute an end to his streak.
At 34, Ripken is perhaps the major leaguer most respected by his peers, as much for his character and professionalism as for his playing skills and the streak. He's so much the player's player that some big leaguers have said he should be allowed to cross the picket line without retribution in order to keep his amazing feat alive.
"It's important what is said about you by the players you play with and against," Ripken says. "It makes me feel good to hear that, but [preserving the streak] is not as big a deal as everyone thinks it is." Like most great players Ripken thrives on competition. "With the lesser caliber of play, playing [in replacement games] wouldn't mean anything to me," Ripken says. "For me, [the decision] is real easy. If no major league baseball is being played, I can't be playing."
From Twin to Gaijin
Japan used to be a haven for washed-up major leaguers and younger U.S. players seeking a bigger paycheck or the opportunity to showcase their talent. Until now no big leaguer at the top of his game has made the move to Japan, but two weeks ago outfielder Shane Mack, a lifetime .299 hitter in seven seasons with the San Diego Padres and the Minnesota Twins, signed a two-year, $8.1 million contract with the Yomiuri Giants, largely because major league owners imposed a salary cap on Dec. 23 and the '95 season is in peril.
Mack hit .333 with the Twins last year, and, at 31, he is clearly at the top of his game. "In an ideal situation, I would be playing for someone here," says Mack, who made $3.2 million last year, became a free agent after the season and was offered a two-year, $6.6 million deal by Minnesota last month. But before Mack and the Twins could negotiate further, a contract moratorium was imposed by the players' union to counter the salary cap implemented by the owners. To be safe, Mack opted for the Far East.