It is a few minutes after midnight, and a maroon van is parked in a damp, dark concrete corridor beneath the rightfield stands of Fenway Park. The game between the Boston Red Sox and the visiting Baltimore Orioles ended an hour ago, and now a tall, erect figure dressed in dark olive slacks, black loafers and a black polo shirt buttoned to the neck moves almost imperceptibly through the shadows toward the van.
A grizzled man with a huge belly and a white beard appears from behind a truck and presents a half dozen baseballs to be autographed. The dark figure, a player, stops and signs in the dim light, then walks on. The driver of the van opens the passenger door and greets the player, who slides into the front seat.
Suddenly a narrow green garage door opens with a clap of metal, and the van slips onto a side street and toward downtown Boston, never once coming into view of the players' exit, which is usually clogged with autograph seekers.
The van passes his team's hotel and continues on other, more exclusive one, which, at the player's insistence, remains unidentified here. This is where he stays—under a fictitious name.
Soon Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. will lie down to rest, another day having ended with a clandestine commute to a secret hotel in which he pretends to be someone else. He sleeps much better this way.
Ripken is both the Gehrig and the Garbo of our time. This Friday he is scheduled to play in his 1,807th consecutive major league game, leaving him 324 games—or exactly two baseball seasons—short of breaking one of the most sacrosanct records in sport: the 2,130 straight games played by New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig. The countdown should be baseball's most celebrated since Pete Rose chased Ty Cobb's career hit record in 1985. Ripken's streak, when one takes into consideration the demands of playing shortstop and the rigors of current scheduling, already rivals, if not surpasses, Gehrig's streak in grandeur. Yet it has made Ripken the object of derision of fanatical pursuit by others, with the has retreated into somber solitude.
"The one thing that weighs on me is that it has become my identity," he says. "That's what people see me as—the streak. And I have to deal with that every series in every city. The management of that is more difficult than anything else. If you only have so much concentration during the day, and you use up 75 percent of that before you get to the ballpark, something's wrong, and you've got to find a way to change that."
Ripken has moved his locker from the center of the sprawling Baltimore clubhouse at Camden Yards to a corner near an exit, the same spot used by his father, Cal Sr., before he was fired as the Orioles' third base coach after last season. Unless he has played a key role in a game, he rarely is available to the media afterward, preferring the sanctuary of the trainer's room or the players' lounge. He has further insulated himself by setting up his own p.r. firm, the Tufton Group, or, as it's known around the Orioles, Cal Inc. When he signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract with Baltimore on his 32nd birthday last August, he asked in a side letter for the right to arrange for, at his own expense, private car services and hotels separate from the team's on the road. The club, with some reluctance, agreed.
"Yes, I think he has withdrawn," says his agent, Ron Shapiro. "There's a tremendous burden created by the public and created within Cal."
The weight of that burden grows heavier when the Orioles don't win and Ripken doesn't hit. The streak is blamed for both. "It's been that way for four or five years," Ripken says, though it has never been more pronounced than this season. Before a recent run of 12 victories in 14 games, the Orioles' record stood at 21-30. And Ripken, coming off a year of career lows in home runs (14) and RBIs (72), continues to struggle, as evidenced by his .221 batting average through Sunday. In 161 games (virtually a complete season), from last June 23 through the end of last week, Ripken batted .222 with 10 home runs. He is a career .277 hitter, but it appears that this will be the sixth year in the past seven that he won't come within a dozen points of that mark, the exception having been his enormous MVP season of 1991.