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Hand It to CAL
Richard Hoffer
December 18, 1995
IN A YEAR IN WHICH WE HONOR ATHLETES WHO ARE DEDICATED TO THEIR CRAFT AND RESPECTFUL OF THEIR GAMES, ONE MAN SURPASSED THE REST IN DILIGENCE AND GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT
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December 18, 1995

Hand It To Cal

IN A YEAR IN WHICH WE HONOR ATHLETES WHO ARE DEDICATED TO THEIR CRAFT AND RESPECTFUL OF THEIR GAMES, ONE MAN SURPASSED THE REST IN DILIGENCE AND GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT

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Yet it turned out to be one of the great feel-good events in sports—ever—and if there wasn't a lump in your throat when Ripken circled the field in a reluctant kind of victory lap, you weren't paying attention. It released a pent-up emotion after two strike-shortened seasons, a missed World Series and a general surliness had destroyed a hundred-plus years' worth of fan loyalty. The fan had long ago learned to cope with the huge salaries and the sordid commerce that had infected his game. But the owners' and players' indifference to tradition was stunning. They would sacrifice a World Series for...what? Can anybody remember? A fan who was no stranger to nostalgia was used to wondering, Can't anybody play this game? It was an old argument, an inviting complaint, harmless. But now he had to ask the far more discouraging question, Won't anybody play this game?

Ripken would. He would play all the games he could, as hard as he could. In a sport accustomed to celebrating freaks of different and unique abilities, Ripken was instead a freak of disposition. He just liked to play baseball. You can't play 14 seasons through and through if you don't like it. Why Ripken liked baseball this much is anyone's guess, though there surely is a genetic component to it.

For him, family life was the residue of baseball; it was whatever was left over from the game. Cal Sr. was a longtime manager and coach in the Oriole organization, making stops in places like Elmira and Rochester, dragging the family along. And Cal Jr. took to the game, understanding his childhood to be privileged—taking infield practice with future major leaguers or just listening to his father detail the Oriole cutoff play. As a 12-year-old he was developing resource material.

Still, heredity doesn't account for the sense of obligation and appreciation he has for baseball. Nor does his entry into pro ball, when scouts placed him on the slow track, to the extent they put him on any track at all. Remember that Ripken was not encouraged to believe he had any special talents back in 1978, when eight shortstops were picked ahead of him in the baseball draft.

Sixteen years later he has outlasted those eight and plenty more. His endurance has become the new standard of sport, and his run for the record couldn't have been more timely. In an era of slouching gods, this devotion to duty was a curative. Here was Ripken, looking somewhat old in his gray-stubble buzz cut, coming to the park every day. It helped that he didn't bounce around, didn't exaggerate his love of the game, didn't act like some caricatured goof from a Norman Rockwell painting. He just kept coming to work because...why wouldn't you? "Look," he says, wholly ignorant of the heavenly glow he might attach to his myth with this statement, "the season's long, 162 games, and a pennant could be decided in any one of them. You never know which one. But do you want to take a chance? Is that the game you'd want to sit out?"

Of course, this being the era it is, not everybody respected the purity of his motives. Since everything seems to have merchandising possibilities these days, it was natural that Ripken's march on the great Gehrig, who had died so dramatically, would be suspect for some. It was a gimmick, a staged attack. He could have and should have taken himself out plenty of times by now. In fact, it was suggested last July by columnist Robert Lipsyte (playfully, we assume) in The New York Times that Ripken might better honor his own name by honoring Gehrig's. He should take a day off before Sept. 5 and then resume playing. "The idea wasn't all that fresh," says Ripken. "It actually was put to me about three years ago, by I won't say who. 'Think of the marketing possibilities,' I was told. Well, I wasn't doing this for a record in the first place, so I wasn't going to not do it for the record either. It never entered my mind."

Most people lauded his effort, however. A happy side effect of the Streak was encountered in newspapers throughout the country, demonstrating anew that positive values can leak from sports into the greater parts of our culture. Usually some horrible issue like domestic violence or drug use among athletes would spill out of the sports pages and into the news sections, as if lifestyles of the rich and spoiled might be instructive to the general populace. But this time Ripken's example prompted a hurried search for people with unusual work records. Think about it: Did your hometown newspaper or your local TV station fail to come up with a nurse who hadn't missed a day in 37 years, a warehouseman who hadn't been sick in 25? Going to work every day was, generally, a good idea, or used to be thought so. It seemed to suggest something adult, like responsibility. And by the way, did anyone ever tell that teacher in your town, that assembly-line worker, to knock off that crazy consecutive-workday stunt and take a day off?

Of course, no country, not even one as abashedly sentimental as ours, would reward an athlete with affection based on attendance. Ripken did more than just show up every day; he was and is a good player. Maybe his offensive numbers don't stack up with Gehrig's, but they'll do for a shortstop of any generation. No other shortstop has hit so many home runs—at least 20 in each of his first 10 full seasons and 327 in all. Few have fielded so flawlessly for so long: highest fielding percentage for a shortstop (.996) in a season, only 75 errors in the last seven seasons combined. Just in case you thought the Streak was the product of some Baltimore hype, remember that he was chosen by fans across the nation to start in 13 straight All-Star Games.

Ripken deserved to play all 2,153 consecutive games, his total at the end of the season. Oh, there were whispers in 1990, when Ripken endured a prolonged slump. After hitting .257 the year before, he was getting extra scrutiny for a sub-.220 batting average in mid-June. Ripken says now that it was during that time that he came the closest to interrupting the Streak; he was willing to sit, but teammate Rick Sutcliffe cautioned him that rest might not be the cure-all he was looking for. "Just fix what's broken," Sutcliffe told him. In 1991 Ripken was the American League MVP—he hit .323 with 34 home runs and 114 RBIs in one of the best years ever by a shortstop—and then the Streak didn't seem like such a bad thing. "The word stubborn does come to mind," says Ripken.

Actually, stubborn is the perfect word. A devotion to principle, whether that principle makes much sense to the rest of us, is usually something to marvel at. And Ripken's devotion to his principle—to play well and at every opportunity—knows no season. His conditioning program goes well beyond what makes sense. His vast home gym is an altar to physical fitness. And Ripken believes he has only so many hours of concentration available to him on any given day, and he likes to save them for the game. As available as he may seem to the public, signing autographs into the wee hours, he is actually extremely protective of his private time with his wife, Kelly (a sometime basketball opponent), and their children, Rachel, 6, and Ryan, 2. A photographer on a recent PEOPLE magazine shoot discovered this when his session spilled over into Ripken's personal schedule. Cal had to pick up Rachel at school, and that was that. The photographer was left mouth agape, holding his light meters as Ripken defiantly drove away.

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