It is no doubt infuriating to today's athletes that our expectations of them are contradictory. We want them to behave as adults, even though we want them to play with the enthusiasm of children. We want them to act modestly, even though we shower them with attention. We want them to treat their job like work, even though we consider it a game. Not many athletes of any generation can deal gracefully with our antithetical yearnings; Ripken is one of the few.
Even in the gray light of November in Baltimore, he was still trying to understand all the fuss. "Emotionally, I feel it," he said, "but intellectually, I don't get it." The emotion, he admitted, was overwhelming. When the number hanging from the warehouse beyond rightfield at Camden Yards changed to 2,131—well, he knew something larger than any streak was at work. He wonders how he ever got through his little speech that night, although there is no mystery to us. (He went over it 10 times in his office, until he no longer choked up upon references to his wife and mother.) He wonders how he ever got through any of it. Of course, another season approaches. And the time he thought he would be given to understand the events of last summer has flown. A tape of The Pride of the Yankees, which he is curious about ("I hear that the movie speech is different from the real one," he says) is still on a coffee table. So is the video of his own milestone night. He'll get to it all someday. But November is already disappearing, and spring training is beginning to loom, and it seems as if there are more games to play. He has to work out.
What we see in Cal Ripken is not often visible in sports. But the grateful fan of 1995 could find plenty of other examples of similar excellence and dedication, whereas in recent years he hadn't been able to count on finding one. There were other cases of superior performance quietly sustained over time. Take Eddie Robinson, who has toiled so long and so steadily at Grambling that—well, who better to turn to for comment than Ripken. "He might be in a class by himself," the Iron Man says. Robinson hasn't missed a game at Grambling since 1941, when he began coaching there, and hasn't missed too many chances for victory either. He notched win number 400 this year but had long since put distance between himself and the man he had passed in becoming the winningest college football coach, Bear Bryant, who had just 323. What's more, 205 of his players have gone on to play in the NFL. Robinson, who has coached all his life at a low-profile, historically black college, has needed those kinds of numbers to get recognition.
Hakeem Olajuwon, though not quite the veteran Robinson is, reflects the same theme of sustained excellence. At age 32, he led the Houston Rockets to their second straight NBA championship with a postseason performance that was nearly transcendent. His play against the league's Most Valuable Player, David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, in the Western Conference finals nearly caused MVP voters to demand a chance to recast their ballots. His 35.3 points a game against the Spurs—"People will be talking about that series and how he played for many, many years," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich—was attention-getting. And then, in the Finals against the Orlando Magic, he neutralized Shaquille O'Neal in a Houston sweep that cemented Olajuwon's greatness for all time.
Similarly, Atlanta Brave righthander Greg Maddux, 29, does not mean to sketch his artistry over the course of a season as much as to paint it against a career. Like Ripken, Maddux has decided that the trick is not just to have a great year but to have a great year and then do it again and again. The 1995 Cy Young Award, his fourth straight—no pitcher ever had won more than two straight—only hinted at the dominance he has enjoyed in the National League. Maddux, who led the major leagues with a 1.56 ERA in '94 and a 1.63 mark in '95, became the first pitcher since Walter Johnson and Hippo Vaughn in 1918 and '19 to have an ERA lower than 1.80 in consecutive seasons. Maddux, whose numbers are often compared with Sandy Koufax's, has not achieved them with Koufax's fastball or with any flamboyance whatsoever. In fact, he believes the lower a profile he keeps, the lower an ERA he'll have. "I'm not going to do anything or say anything that makes a hitter remember me," he said. So he lies low, and the mystery he thereby creates extends to the batter's box. Says Atlanta catcher Charlie O'Brien, "I've never seen so many guys leaving the plate saying, 'Damn, how did he do that?' "
But our galaxy of worthy heroes isn't filled just with cagey veterans, people of athletic obstinacy, players of unusual longevity. There is still a place for brilliance, promise, the excitement provided by new stars rising. Remember, Ripken was young once too. (He won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1982.) Now it's the 19-year-old Tiger Woods, the 28-year-old Michael Johnson and the 22-year-old Rebecca Lobo. And, of course, the stallion Cigar. He's only five.
Cigar was the first stakes champion to have an undefeated year since 1980, when Spectacular Bid also went 10 for 10. By winning the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall, Cigar ran his two-year winning streak to 12 races, neared the alltime career money mark and invited comparisons to legends like Secretariat and Seattle Slew. That may be generous, but it's still impressive for a horse (named for an aeronautical checkpoint over the Gulf of Mexico, not a cheroot, by the way) who was unraced at 2 and who had just one win in 11 starts, all on turf, during his 3- and 4-year-old campaigns. For the troubled sport of thoroughbred racing, where there had been no superstars for too long, Cigar became a glamour boy with a blue-collar heart.
Lobo, a center-forward for the 35-0 Connecticut Huskies, was just as charismatic. She made women's basketball a featured sport. UConn sold 6,541 season tickets before Lobo's senior season, and after she led the Huskies to the national title, her school signed a $2.28 million TV contract with a local station. ESPN agreed to televise 39 more women's basketball games nationally in 1995-96 than it had last season. Lobo, who's now with the U.S. women's national team and is headed for this summer's Olympics in Atlanta, is what you call an impact player. She averaged 17.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 3.6 assists for a UConn team that outscored opponents by an average of 33 points. You can almost understand her girlhood dream of playing in the NBA: She wrote Red Auerbach a letter in the fourth grade promising to be "the first girl to play for the Celtics."
No offense to Carl Lewis and Butch Reynolds, who have competed at a high enough level long enough to make Ripken proud, but where is the next generation of world-class track athlete? Well, he has arrived in the form of Johnson, who—onetime high school nerd, not so long out of Baylor—won both the 200- and 400-meter races at the World Championships in Sweden in August. Johnson's 400-meter time of 43.39 was .1 of a second shy of Reynolds's long-standing world record, but Johnson's performance came under more demanding circumstances. Not only did Johnson have to run three flat-out 400 heats to make the final, and not only was he doubling in the 200, but he was also anchoring the victorious U.S. 4X100-meter relay team. No wonder, with this display of speed, versatility and durability, Johnson drew comparisons to Jesse Owens.
Johnson figures to leave a big mark on track and field by the time he is through, and Woods seems destined to do likewise in golf. Just a sophomore at Stanford, he has already won back-to-back U.S. Amateur titles, and his dramatic finishes in both have been powerful teasers for fans awaiting the next Jack Nicklaus. The pro career of Woods, a prodigy schooled well and easily by his father, Earl, is so eagerly anticipated that even as Woods remains an amateur, he is being besieged by endorsement possibilities. And why not? He's handsome, talkative and hits the ball a mile.