Cal Ripken is the kind of meticulous person who wears a digital wristwatch during pregame batting and fielding practice. So when he failed to show for our lunch date on June 7, 1993, I knew something was up. He was at home, alternately icing a sprained right medial collateral ligament and gingerly walking back and forth in his driveway. Never mind lunch. The Streak was about to be canceled.
Ripken had played in 1,790 consecutive games until that afternoon, a number doomed to be as forgotten as Everett Scott's 1,307 in the long shadow cast by Lou Gehrig's 2,130. Naturally Ripken, who had injured his knee in a bench-clearing brawl the previous day, played for the Orioles that night He didn't even miss infield practice.
I thought about that day last week when Ripken announced that he'll retire at the end of this season. I imagined a Ripken without the record 2,632 consecutive games, as one might Rodin without The Thinker or Ben Franklin without the kite. What emerged was a fuller, more accurate appreciation of a master, of Ripken as one of the alltime greats. Beloved as he is, Ripken is even more than he seems.
You start with this: Ripken is the second-best shortstop in baseball history, after Honus Wagner. Ernie Banks, Ripken's nearest peer, played only eight full seasons at short and finished with more games at first base. Ripken hit the most home runs as a shortstop (345), turned the second-most double plays (1,565), tied with Omar Vizquel for fewest errors in a season (three in 1990) and revolutionized the position.
Baseball never had seen anyone at shortstop like Ripken, an athletic, 6'4" power hitter, until manager Earl Weaver installed him there in 1982. Ripken hit 28 home runs that year. For the first time, a generation of young players—one that included Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez—grew up thinking the shortstop template included size and power.
"He gave me hope that as a bigger shortstop, you can find opportunities," Rodriguez says. "Who knows? If Cal was never around, maybe guys like me wouldn't be around either."
Ripken gave me a 15-minute dissertation on taking cutoff throws. I was enthralled by his passion even more than by his knowledge. In his time baseball has never known a better ambassador. His commitment to youth baseball, including giving $9 million for a baseball complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md., ensures that his contributions will endure. What can matter more than that?
So take away the Streak. It's incidental to measuring the greatness of his career. The real beauty of Ripken isn't that he played the game every day. It's that he played it so well and with such dignity.