Pressure is ordering leadoff with Cal Ripken on deck. When the waitress arrives at the dinner table I share with the healthiest player in the history of baseball, I know there will be talk of vegetables. Lots of vegetables. Maybe some fish. A glass of juice, or perhaps bottled water. I am sure this guy's arteries flow like the Colorado during the spring runoff. He's Jack LaLanne in spikes. I make the easy choice. "Grilled chicken sandwich," I say, burning with guilt about the unspoken side of fries that will accompany it.
Then Ripken, who is famished after a long spring training day in brutal Florida heat, swings from the heels: He'll have the ribs and fries and a bottle of mass-brewed beer and an order of whatever appetizer can be whisked in front of him the fastest. He is delighted when told it's the fried chicken wings that fly.
Withholding something between a gasp and a burst of laughter, I realize my mistake. Ripken is a simple man in a complicated time. What a relief for the rest of us.
A parade of people—grandmothers, middle-aged men, schoolgirls, a mother and daughter, boys not yet born when he played his first big league game—keep interrupting his dinner for an autograph. Most of them approach him by saying, "I don't want to bother you while you're eating...," with the obvious intention of doing exactly that. Ripken happily obliges them all, pausing only to clean the grease from his fingers before signing. Only weeks after the end of the worst strike in sports history, Ripken is beloved more than ever; not only is he immune to the virus that has weakened baseball, but for some he's also an antidote to the infection.
Think about this: The worst thing anyone ever said about Cal Ripken is that he never misses a game.
"What I really hate is that every time I get in a slump," Ripken said nine years ago, "they say it's because I'm tired from playing so much. Always, I'm tired. I'm not tired. It's not fair."
He was 25 years old when he said that, not yet one third of the way to eclipsing Lou Gehrig. He has played almost his entire career with people fussing so much about the Streak that they have missed the real artistry of the man. Take away the Streak and Ripken is still a Hall of Famer.
Cooperstown could cast an impressive plaque right now—never mind the mandatory five-year wait after retirement—without ever mentioning the Streak: "No shortstop hit more home runs in a career, made fewer errors in a season or handled more consecutive chances flawlessly. He is the only player to start the All-Star Game in 12 consecutive years. A two-time MVP, he won the awards eight years apart, a span matched only by Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. He has played the game with intelligence, grace, passion and, above all, respect."
Ripken will almost certainly finish his career without changing teams, without trash-talking an opponent, without checking into a rehab center, without cutting an album and without winding up under the "Jurisprudence" heading in your sports section. That alone puts him in select company in these days of packaged sports stars who are long on style but short on substance.
After dinner that night in Florida, Ripken and I carried our conversation into the restaurant parking lot. He opened the back to his blue rental van—not exactly the vehicle of choice for the image-conscious—and offered me a drink. He had a cooler of PowerAde inside.