Personally, I've always hated irony. I like things to be straightforward, to be what they seem and for people to get what they deserve, or at least not the opposite of it. But life likes to work out crookedly, with a perverse twist, a confounding spin, a humor that adds spice but often feels like malice.
In recent weeks, as Cal Ripken batted .340 and slugged nearly .600 in his pursuit of 3,000 hits, I've often thought how deliciously ironic it was that, as he reached his most glamorous hitting achievement, he was batting much better at age 39 than he ever had in his career. That kind of irony I liked just fine.
Another irony, however, lurked in the wings -- the kind I don't like but often identify with sports: the traditional "bitter irony." Last night, that irony -- that "state of affairs which seems opposite to, and almost a mockery of, what seems appropriate" -- came to pass. The Baltimore Orioles announced that Ripken, who had 2,991 hits with 13 games left on the '99 schedule, would have season-ending back surgery. Immediately.
The Iron Man, on the brink of perhaps his last great national stage, would have to sit out a long stretch for the third time in five months. As if it weren't enough that his father died just six months ago. Despite the linkage between "irony" and "humor," perhaps you can see my point that irony in sports usually isn't very funny.
Just as he hooked up with batting coach Terry Crowley and finally figured out the art and science of hitting, Ripken's body betrayed him this season. After playing 2,632 games, a streak that made a laughingstock of the probability theory, Ripken suddenly missed entire months at a time. For example, May and August.
Unfortunately, Ripken's injury was not of the familiar, predictable or even chronic kind. Rather, it was mysterious to him. As he explained it, he had a nerve in his back that sometimes "lay down in its bed" for weeks or months at a time. Then, he felt wonderful. However, when that nerve -- for who knows what capricious reason -- began sleep walking, getting out of its proper channel, Ripken's pain was excruciating.
Even more annoying for Ripken was the uncertainty of whether surgery would cure the problem. Or have some other unpleasant result. This wasn't a knee scope or ligament repair or a torn rotator cuff. The ultimate baseball man had a non-baseball kind of injury.
His reaction was, as always, to analyze the problem, study the medical literature, endure the discomfort and continue to perform. Above all, in recent weeks, he's wanted to get to that 3,000th hit before the end of the season. Why the rush? Because Ripken knows his sport. Baseball, you see, absolutely loves irony.
Roberto Clemente finished the 1972 season with exactly 3,000 hits, then was killed in a plane crash in the offseason while on a disaster-relief mission. That's tragic irony. For no particular reason, the old Washington Senators outfielder Sam Rice retired with 2,987 hits, rather than sticking around for 3,000. Partly as a result, it took him nearly 30 years to get into the Hall of Fame. With just 13 more hits, he'd have enjoyed swapping lies with other baseball immortals on the back porch of the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown during induction week for an extra 20 years.
Everybody's going to be cheerful and optimistic now about Ripken's prospects. You can book it. Ripken wouldn't have had this surgery if he thought it would end his career. He'd have just kept toughing it out, rehabbing and being patient. There's no doubt he thinks, and has been told, that this will prolong his career, not end it. After all, he's got another year at $6.3 million on his contract. He's playing better than he has in at least five years. His team is on a 13-game winning streak. Most important, he's absolutely loving the game once more, after several years of creaking under the twin burdens of streak publicity and rapidly dwindling production at the plate.
Still, doesn't this have the uneasy feeling of one of baseball's mordant ironic junctures? When something happens which is exactly and perfectly wrong, don't we all get a chill?
Robert Frost, in a bleak mood, once wrote a poem about a beautiful butterfly caught in a spider's web. How ironic, he noted, that two designs as beautiful and emblematic of order as a butterfly wing and a spider's web should unite in an image of death.
Now, we have a tiny nerve in the back of a great athlete, renowned for his indestructibility, which refuses to lie down in its bed when everything else about the man is in readiness for a crowning achievement.
Frost wondered if there was "design" in nature, right down to the smallest wing or web. Or rather, was there entirely too much ironic happenstance -- too many small nerves in the backs of great men, so to speak -- to accommodate our sense of fairness.
"What but design of darkness to appall? -- If design govern in a thing so small," concluded Frost. If, this morning, you feel a bit appalled at the irony in Ripken's surgery and even have a few questions about design, you have company.