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Shirley Povich Tribute

  Beyond the Feat, Ripken Fills Gehrig's Shoes

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, September 8, 1995; Page C01

Four hundred twenty five miles from Baltimore, in Boston's Fenway Park, there erupted on Wednesday night a noisy, five-minute ovation for Cal Ripken. The scoreboard there had just flashed the news: Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record was history. Long Live Cal Ripken, and the new number is 2,131.

The cheering in Boston was only a symbol of the scope of the boon to baseball generated by Ripken's heroics, 13 years in the making. With the possible exception of Babe Ruth, has any one player had more impact on the game than Ripken with his assault on Gehrig's record of 56 years? For years, any challenge of such was derided as a fool's errand. But last year, Ripken brought it into his sights and this season he drew a bead on it.

So what would have otherwise been an ordinary Sept. 6 game between the Orioles and California Angels at Camden Yards took on the dimensions of an epic. The swarm of media rivaled — and may have exceeded — the coverage of a World Series game. The presence of the president of the United States was obligatory. The networks vied for positions for their camera crews. Baseball was back in the nation's limelight. Cal Ripken was going for the record. This would be historic, and it was.

The Orioles were providing their own army of public relations staffers for this event, to caress and provide for every need of the mass media. Available within reach of everybody were carefully placed reams of Ripken and Orioles data, biographical, statistical and more. It caused me to ruminate about those days in the 1920s when the owner of the Senators, Clark Griffith, would do his own public relations work by phoning The Washington Post sports department and saying, "{Walter} Johnson is pitching tomorrow. Give us a headline."

If they can muster a shred of decency, the lords of organized baseball should bow deeply in obeisance and gratitude for the deeds of Ripken, this extraordinary man who broke the extraordinary record of Gehrig's.

Organized baseball got luckier than it deserved in the emergence of Ripken as a savior of much of the game's charms. In a year when major league baseball has few friends, when boycott is in the air and attendance is down 20 percent; when some franchises are a wreck; when fans are soured at the greed of club owners and players alike; when the players struck and walked out on the owners, with both factions united only in their public-be-damned stance, Ripken came riding in from the east as The Peace Maker who brings fans back to the game.

Not by his super play alone, or by his work ethic has Ripken renewed America's interest in baseball. The nation found a new interest in the man himself, who exemplifies the family values that politicos only talk about; who dedicated himself to making friends with the fans, so important to the game, a rebuke to overpaid colleagues who had no time for such; who, when the question was put to him point blank the other day, responded modestly that "Lou Gehrig was a better ballplayer than I am."

By acclamation, Ripken has won approval as a hero and role model. In Gehrig's day there were heroes, like himself and Babe Ruth, but folks didn't talk of role models and, anyway, they would have been hard to find. So many, like Ruth, were flawed, so many like Gehrig were nice guys but absorbed mostly in baseball with little time for the community.

For all his fame, Cal Ripken is homespun. On the morning of the day he would go for the record he said it was important, too, that he take his daughter Rachel, 5, to her first day in school. When the cheers in Camden Yards were at their loudest — "We want Cal!" — he asked for his mom and dad to come onto the field to share them. When he got those eight curtain calls and he took that victory lap around the park, he tried to shake every hand offered him. He was being more than cheered. This was adoration.

If there has been any complaint about Ripken as a ballplayer, it has to do with his sometime propensity for hitting into double plays. But that has been the curse of all hard hitters whose ground balls get to the infielders so speedily. In that respect, Ripken is also the victim of the level swing, so prized by batting coaches, and the gospel for most batsmen. In that matter, there is a center of some prominence, name of Ted Williams, highest connoisseur of bat and ball. Williams has his own theory — oft expressed in words like "{Damn} the level swing. You've got to swing a little bit up."

It was fascinating also on Wednesday night when Ripken topped off his record-breaking act by hitting that home run in the fourth inning. In that episode, he, like the complete ballplayer he is, selected the 3-0 pitch, which offered the most home run possibilities. He knows when to be an opportunist.

The late Lou Gehrig would probably be abashed at the news that Ripken had successfully attacked his endurance record. But he would probably be more shocked to learn that a breakdown over Ripken's salary says he is paid $47,000 a game to perform for the Orioles. At the peak of his career, Gehrig drew a salary of $37,000 for the entire season. The sign of those times, and these.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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