This has been an era of diminished expectations, of lowered standards in sports. Today's fan, disappointed by his heroes and his pastimes, watches his games with more resignation than anticipation. It seems eccentricity has taken the place of performance, celebrity the place of character. A funny-looking guy with orange hair reclines on a basketball floor, pouting, pointedly ignoring the play of his teammates. It's entertainment, all right, but it's not what the fan remembers as sport.
And there's hardly anything to root for anymore. There are no home teams, few reliable citizens, and there's not always a World Series. This is a sad time when neither virtue nor achievement can be taken for granted. One episode after another breeds cynicism, conspires against the fan's pleasure, deadens his joy. He settles for the sullen competence that is allowed to qualify as stardom these days.
Then there comes a year like this, a year in which sports were brightened by athletes whose skill and effort and energy and personality answered the fan's yearning for true heroes.
There was a black teenager, poised to overtake a white man's game, deflecting angles of race in a race-weary year as smoothly as he swung an eight-iron. A Spaniard whose fifth consecutive Tour de France victory established a once unthinkable dominance. An unbeatable horse. A seven-foot native Nigerian whose play in the NBA postseason raised the threshold for basketball greatness. A 76-year-old football coach, 55 years on the job, the same job, who reached the 400-win milestone. And there was a pitcher who quietly revealed his preeminence, irrefutable after four straight Cy Young Awards.
Any one of them could be Sportsman of the Year, or Sportswoman, as in the case of the basketball player who not only led her team to an NCAA championship but also focused unprecedented national attention on her game. More candidates: the German who won her sixth Wimbledon, the Californian who won his third straight. A runner who won three gold medals at the track and field World Championships. A wide receiver whose desperate devotion to his game was disguised by his easy brilliance on the field.
There were so many, and they were so diverse. Yet there was something about all of them the fan recognizes, something decidedly retro and refreshing. It's hard to say what it is. Let's think about it for a minute. There's a man, close-cropped gray hair, looks older than 35, standing in the partial glow of stadium lights, standing along the railing of an empty field, signing autographs hours after a game. He doesn't really have any place to go, his family is asleep, so it's no big deal. He signs away, not to rekindle a country's love affair with its national pastime (that kind of calculation is beyond him) but because somebody wants something and it's easy to give. A teammate offers him a big leaguer's diagnosis: "You're sick."
The man shrugs. He has played in more games consecutively than any other man, dead or alive. Punched in, punched out. It's not so much a record, not a reward for greatness, as it is a by-product of sustained adolescence and, of course, unusual good health. A milestone is all it is. He knows it, too. The man shrugs, signing away beneath the stadium lights. "If you could play baseball every day," he says, "wouldn't you?"
Cal Ripken Jr., though he'll surely go into the Hall of Fame as a power-hitting shortstop, is not the greatest baseball player ever, or even of his day. But how could he not be our Sportsman of the Year? He's like the rest in our little galaxy—but more so. He's dedicated to his craft, respectful of his game and proud enough of his abilities to continue their refinement well into his 30's. As you read this (maybe the snow is drifting against your door and encouraging a couch-bound indolence), he is taking grounders in his home gym, rotating groups of five into his athletic compound for daily basketball games, lifting weights.
Ripken and the 11 others we celebrate along with him are all kind of old-fashioned, all seem to be playing for something other than money. Oh, they'll do a shoe commercial (well, Cigar won't), but when it's over, they'll all be better remembered for careers than ad campaigns. Whatever they're doing, they're doing for the love of their game. Almost to a man and a woman, they've had grind-it-out careers, athletic lifetimes in which the usual perks, if there are any, are incidental. Do you believe that Eddie Robinson has been thinking about moving up to the NFL during all these years he has been coaching football at Grambling? For that matter, do you doubt that Pete Sampras, despite his advertising duel with that other tennis player, believes that substance shall prevail over style? And amateur golfer Tiger Woods, the cub of this group: Don't you think he might be designed for the long haul? They're all a little different in their particulars, but they all give off that whiff of doggedness, stoicism, a gladiator's spirit in which all is sacrificed for performance. They assure the fan, in this grim time, that he need not settle for just anything, anymore.
The athletes we've assembled in this supporting cast can all look up to Ripken, at least this year, after the way he almost single-handedly restored the once loyal fan's faith in baseball, single-handedly turned attention to a pioneer work ethic. His "assault" on Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played was surely the least dramatic record run of all time. We knew for years that, barring an injury to Ripken, Gehrig's record was going to fall. Nobody had to wonder whether some Baltimore Oriole manager was going to yank Ripken from the lineup to rest him, or whether Ripken himself was going to beg out of the second half of a doubleheader to nurture some mysterious ache. And assuming the fan could read a baseball schedule, he knew months in advance exactly when (Sept. 6) and where (Camden Yards) the record-breaking would happen. There was nothing conditional about this record except Ripken's attendance. He didn't have to hit in his 57th straight game, pitch a seventh no-hitter, clout his 62nd home run. No record, before or since, has been set with less pressure. All Ripken had to do to set it was be there.