Says Rose, "I think the streak is a good thing for baseball, but it's a better thing for baseball if the player is productive. If Cal Ripken plays like Cal Ripken should last year, the Orioles probably win the pennant. Unless he has a decent year, people will say he's just trying for the record. If he hits .215, is the streak a good thing? Any pressure he's getting is created by himself because of his low batting average and statistics."
Baltimore manager Johnny Oates explains Ripken's drop-off in home runs as a normal result of his advancing age, but why hasn't Ripken's 1993 batting average approached even .250, which has been his norm for the second half of his career? Ripken blames much of his trouble last year on uncertainty over his contract and his failed attempt to duplicate the crouched stance that worked so well for him in '91. It wasn't until last month that Ripken—after tinkering with the crouch so much that one scout says, "It hurt just watching him hit like that"—finally gave up and returned to an upright stance. Since then he has been driving the ball better but still not getting results.
San Francisco Giant hitting coach Bobby Bonds, as quoted last month in The San Francisco Examiner, scoffed at Ripken's insistence on playing through a prolonged slump, saying, "He's doing it for a record, but I think he's stupid for doing it. Is he helping the team or hurting the team? He's probably hurting the team. He wants to break Gehrig's record even if it will cost Baltimore the pennant."
There is no such sentiment in the Baltimore clubhouse, not among the people who know best how many ways Ripken, as clever and sure-handed afield as ever, can help the Orioles win even on his hitless nights. There is tierce support from players such as pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who bridles at Bonds's remarks, saying, "That's a guy who's back in baseball only because his son owns half the team, and he's getting on a guy who plays every day. He coached in Cleveland when I was there, and it was tough getting him to the park just to coach some days."
"If the good Lord wants him to have an off day, He'll let it rain," says Oates. "If Cal stays healthy, he'll break the record. The decision's out of my hands now."
Ripken has missed only four innings all year and just 132 in the streak, which began on May 30 of his rookie year, 1982. And not once in all those years has he served as the DH. The streak has become so large that Ripken and the club are imprisoned by their quest to protect its purity. "There are vultures ready to slap an asterisk on any streak," Oates says. "I'm not going to allow that to happen." Says Ripken, "It has nothing to do with Gehrig. It's my own view of baseball."
Has the streak sapped his strength? Not likely. Ripken is a remarkable physical specimen with tremendous energy. After one night game earlier this season in which he went 0 for 4 with an error, Ripken ran on a treadmill for an hour. Before home games he often shoots basketballs in the full-court gymnasium at his house, and after games he is known to lift weights until as late as one in the morning. This is a guy whose idea of kicking back is to miss pregame infield practice, which he did last month in Toronto for the first time during the streak. "I volunteered to do it just to see what it was like," he says ashamedly, like a truant schoolboy coming clean. "It was strange." He hasn't missed one since.
"Physically, I don't think he gets tired," Oates says. "Mentally, he gets tired. He gets more fatigued by the extracurricular things than by the playing of the game."
Streaks seemingly gain a life of their own. As Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, who threw a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, describes it, "One of the things about staying in a groove is getting out of your own way."
The lifespan of a streak depends greatly on how a player withstands the attention it generates. Rose, for instance, gladly held news conferences before and after every game toward the end of his 44-game hitting streak in "78. "It was fun," he says. "I always liked the limelight."