One for the Book: Consummate Prose

By Charles Krauthammer
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 06, 1995

Some players you watch for the poetry. You watch Ozzie Smith, shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, come out on to the field and do his backward flip as warmup and intro, and then wait for him to make the impossible lunge, the 360-degree twirl and flawless peg to first.

When you watched Reggie Jackson, too, you waited for the impossible, say, three home runs on three consecutive swings in the World Series. Or home runs so titanic that Reggie just had to stand at home plate admiring "the greatness of me." So did you.

Reggie and Ozzie, like Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays, are baseball's poets. Cal Ripken is its greatest master of prose. You don't go to watch Ripken for the titanic shots or the impossible plays. He will hit home runs and he will make great plays, but what makes him extraordinary is the way he does the ordinary with astonishing ease, grace and precision.

I go to Camden Yards to watch Ripken make the routine plays. Watching him field the grounder is an aesthetic pleasure: Off before contact, perfectly positioned when the ball reaches him, he bends his 6-foot-4 frame, spreads his arms (his"wingspan,"as one broadcaster delights in putting it) so as to smother any bad bounce or foil any untoward twist of fate, pulls the ball softly in toward his chest just as it hits his glove, transfers it imperceptibly to his throwing arm in one uninterrupted motion, turns his shoulders, and then half-sidearm fires impeccably and invariably on the mark to first.

It is a "just-in-time" operation. He doesn't get the runner out by too much because he knows how fast each one is and does not waste his arm or increase the risk of an error by throwing for show. An economy of prose that every writer, let alone ballplayer, should envy.

It is fitting that the master of prose should make the record book with the most prosaic of all records -- consecutive games. Not consecutive homers or consecutive hits or consecutive steals. Just playing well, very well, every day for 13 years nonstop.

He once went a full season making only three errors. That is: out of 680 chances, missing three. The previous record was six. He once played 95 consecutive games -- 431 chances! -- without making an error. And for a man thought too tall for shortstop, a position usually reserved for the short and the quick, he holds the AL record for most assists in a season. The only shortstop who since World War II has handled more chances in a season -- the measure of range, the ability to reach the ball -- is Ozzie Smith.

On the face of it, a consecutive-games streak is an odd thing to honor. It is honoring someone for just showing up at work every day. There are a lot of office workers with longer such streaks than Ripken. But that is probably why he is such a hero to ordinary folk. He is the ultimate craftsman: day in and day out, without stop, without pomp, plying his craft at the highest level.

Consistency, the pros call it. It is rare that consistency is so honored. But then there has never been consistency like it.

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers' Group and a television commentator.

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