Ripken's Impact Will Go on Forever
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 21, 1998; Page A1
BALTIMORE, Sept. 20 Cal Ripken, and his inspiring streak of 2,632 consecutive games, ended tonight in the one way that few within baseball expected.
Neither injury, nor old age, nor lost skill, nor clubhouse intrigue nor any bitter controversy snapped The Streak.
Instead, Ripken ended it himself. The legendary Baltimore Orioles third baseman did it with exquisite timing not too soon and not too belatedly. Ripken managed this nationally awaited moment with no fanfare or self-celebration. At the last minute before a game against the New York Yankees, he told Manager Ray Miller: Not tonight.
Best of all, Ripken ended his streak which he had more than enough clout and health to continue indefinitely voluntarily. It was in the best interests of the team and its future. So he did it.
Over the 16 years since he missed his last game in 1982, many of his teammates have asked, jokingly, what would Ripken do with himself if he couldn't play? Tonight, they got their answer. By the fourth inning, he was out in the bullpen the only place where a player can interact with fans without breaking a rule or interrupting the game.
Ripken was signing autographs.
By the sixth inning, he was warming up the outfielders by playing catch between innings, like a bullpen catcher or old coach. In the seventh, with a warmup jacket on, despite a warm evening, so he could hide his famous No. 8 and not cause a commotion, Ripken was out in center field beyond the wall, shaking the hands of bleacher fans.
Sad? Who's sad. When you do everything right for your entire career, then end your milestone streak on your own terms and in your own low-key classy style, that's just a different kind of beauty.
Of all the records set in baseball, perhaps Ripken's mark, more than any other, deserved a clean, untarnished and dignified ending. Yet, hard as it is to believe, that same incredible mark was one that baseball insiders worried would end with ugliness, embarrassment or recriminations.
One of Ripken's greatest strengths is his absolute stubbornness a family trait. Would he ever see the wisdom of missing a game? Or would a manager, general manager, or even owner Peter Angelos, who has shown a mean streak at times, order him benched? Several days ago, a prominent member of the Orioles' organization told me, "I hope Cal takes a day off this season before somebody makes him take one next spring."
That might have been in the cards. And Ripken might well have sensed it. No player understands every aspect and nuance of the game better than this son of career coach and manager. No one knows better than Ripken how significantly his stats have slipped this season.
His .273 batting average is just three points less than his career average. And, with just nine errors this season, he's one of the best fielders at his position in the game. He's played every game this season for a good reason. They've had nobody better. In that sense, his streak has not been tainted at all.
But Ripken's long formidable power is almost gone 13 homers and 61 RBI. In an era of mammoth offense, he's one of the worst run producers among all major league third basemen. In recent days, he's resorted to a desperation batting stance too grotesque to describe. At midseason, he was asked, "Is your old power gone for good?" He didn't blink or duck. It was a baseball question. "In the past, I've never known when it'll suddenly come back. Hitting it timing. We'll see."
Nonetheless, it hasn't returned. "Cal looks like he's cheating to get to some pitches. And when he does hit it, the ball doesn't jump off is bat any more," said one scout at tonight's game. "There's no shame in that. He's 38. And he's still a solid player."
Ever since he broke Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 consecutive games on Sept. 6, 1995, in one of the most moving events in baseball in the last quarter-century, Ripken has claimed he'd "know when it was time" to snap the skein. Many times he explained that the streak would end "within the context of the game."
In other words, there would come a moment when it would be obvious that, if there were no streak, it would be normal baseball procedure for him not to play. Most assumed the ultra-fit Ripken, who has never been in trimmer or stronger shape, was refering to an injury.
Now, we know that injury and age never got the last word on Ripken. And neither did hubris, that other bane of normal men. Suddenly, tonight, everything came together to make it obvious to Ripken that this was a suitable end.
It was the Orioles' last home game of the season. The night's opponent was a mighty Yankees team, worthy of Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth. The Orioles had been (realistically) eliminated from the wild-card race. At such times, it is considered good form for veterans to step aside and let the organization's top prospects and late-season call-ups show their stuff and get their cleats wet. The most prominent of all Orioles prospects is, ironically, a third baseman-Ryan Minor.
Ripken scratched himself from the lineup. Minor played.
One final piece of timing made this evening perfect. Ripken may have lost some of his timing at the plate, but not in his heart, not in his sense of what's right for his game.
On the night of 2,131, baseball needed Ripken as its standard bearer more than the sport had needed any player at any time since Ruth saved the game with his home runs and his smile in the wake of the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Ever since that moment, as Ripken hit home runs in Nos. 2,129, 2,130 and 2,131, he has signed more autographs no one disputes this than any modern player. Maybe any five modern players.
No interview, no charity appearance to promote adult literacy, no opportunity to help revive baseball has been too much for Ripken.
Now, it's Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's turn. Ripken showed them, and everybody else in the sport, how to act in the spotlight, how to grow larger when history demands it of you and how to enjoy the game and its adoring fans as they deserve to be appreciated.
Ripken's time on top as the greatest power-hitting shortstop in American League history and as the Iron Man has come to an end.
However, one distinction is still left to Ripken. Baseball has never had a more universally beloved player. Nor has it ever had one who was raised up as the embodiment of the game for better reasons.
That has not changed. That's a streak that will go on forever.
© Copyright 1998 Washington Post Company