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It's Not Standard Practice, but We Should Go Early

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
September 06, 1995

Nobody ever deserved a national day of frivolous glory more than Cal Ripken Jr. A culture that doesn't mind bending its knee to silly trash now has a chance to make a full bow before a sportsman of real quality. And a game that has fallen victim to its shabbiest, shallowest power brokers has a chance to remind itself—through Ripken—of its roots, its substance, its backbone.

Usually, ballparks don't open until about 90 minutes before game time. Tonight perhaps Oriole Park at Camden Yards ought to be closed right after it opens. Anybody who can't show up ahead of time—to watch batting practice, infield practice and the precise chalking of the foul lines—probably shouldn't be allowed into the joint. At least not on the night Ripken presumably breaks Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

"Not practice. Perfect practice," were the words that Ripken was raised on. His father, the ultimate tough old Oriole coach, reduced the job to those four words. Rip Senior passed that wisdom to his namesake like an heirloom. Young Calvin respectfully accepted the family faith as gospel. Baseball was fun. But it was also dignified craft. There wasn't just a right way to do things. There was a perfectable way. What a fine guiding idea for a joyful working man.

Of course, nobody's actually going to lock the Oriole Park gates early tonight. Still, wouldn't it be appropriate—after all the pleasure Ripken's given us—if we inconvenienced ourselves a bit by arriving early so we could watch Ripken at his work? That is to say, at his practice. For one day, couldn't we be as authentic and enthusiastic as fans as Ripken is almost every day as an athlete?

Lots of players, especially veteran stars who make $6 million a year, go weeks without laying down a bunt in batting practice. If Ripken's first turn in the cage does not begin with a bunt, or if he neglects to practice hitting behind the runner by slicing a couple of pitches to right field, it will be the first time he's disobeyed his father's regimen in 18 pro seasons.

For years, many fans across the country have regarded Ripken as an historic iron man, a formidable hitter, a steady shortstop and a fairly boring person—in that order. To those who've known Ripken throughout his whole career, this has been an annoying misperception—almost an inversion of the actual person. To them, Ripken is a wonderfully appealing person, a perfect diamond of a shortstop, a good but flawed hitter and, almost incidentally, The Immortal Streaker—in that order.

These days, thanks to the streak, Ripken's personal qualities are getting their due. Each time you hold him up to the light, you see a different facet that reflects brightly.

His playfulness—reflecting his mother's vivacious temperament—has finally been getting some attention. Those around Ripken have always appreciated his mischief. Early in his career, Ripken drove Jim Palmer crazy by asking the great pitcher about his two attractive teenage daughters. As teammates snickered, Ripken gradually conned the horrified Palmer into acting like a protective fuddy-duddy father. One day, as Palmer headed to the shower, Ripken yelled, "Watch out, I'm going to marry into your family."

Ripken has always been more sardonic than the public suspects. When the Orioles began the 1988 season with 21 straight losses, I went to Minnesota when the team reached 0-19. As soon as Ripken saw me, he said, "Join the hostages."

To some, the most surprising insights into Ripken this year have come from his numerous impromptu midnight autograph parties—from Camden Yards to Kansas City—that have left even hardened cynics shaking their heads.

It's not just that Ripken signs. For an hour or more. In uniform. After a long, hot game. What's virtually unique is that he talks to almost every fan and swaps stories with obvious enjoyment. He likes them. He's not in a hurry. He wants to meet them, leave them with something.

Until this year, Ripken never seemed at peace with the streak. Often, he seemed to resent its omnipresence. He felt that his actual play was overshadowed and even a bit demeaned by it. After all, to act as though the defining quality of Ripken's career is that he went 13 years without spraining his ankle is like telling Albert Einstein that posterity will remember him for his eggs Benedict. It's a compliment that's pretty close to an insult.

Until this season, when Ripken saw how badly injured baseball was and how much healing power his streak possessed, he never much liked The Thing. But it was there, challenging and beckoning him. He couldn't back down.

In retrospect, Ripken has probably played in every game since May 30, 1982, for two main reasons. First, except for a sore knee from a brawl in 1993, he's never had an injury bad enough to make him consider coming out of the lineup. His blend of size, toughness, good luck and unparalleled fundamental soundness—the product of perfect practice—has made the feat feasible.

Second, Ripken, like all the cussed men in his family, is too ornery to let anybody tell him to take a day off. And plenty have tried. Maybe the real reason the streak is still intact is that so many half-cocked people have nagged Cal to end it. Tell a Ripken his long-considered, deeply respected method is the wrong approach and the die is cast. Drop dead, buddy.

For those of us who've followed Ripken since his career's first baby steps in the minors, this entire week will feel comically inappropriate and yet utterly deserved. Tonight's game will be the culmination of months of hype, exaggeration and celebrity glorification. Those who love Big Events will come to worship a guy who hasn't got an iota of reverence for the man he sees in the mirror. Ripken's great day will, in a sense, contradict the very essence of the person many of us know so well.

Nonetheless, we wouldn't cancel Ripken's Career Achievement Parade for the world. Playful, dutiful, gentle, stubborn, unpretentious Calvin deserves to be mistaken for A Great Hero.

As game time approaches tonight and we watch Ripken in the batting cage, some of us will be pretty sure we know what's on his mind. The Living Legend won't be thinking about Lou Gehrig or his place in history. And he won't be praying that he doesn't foul a ball off his ankle.

Ripken will be working on that messed-up batting stance that has infuriated him all season. Sooner or later, he'll get the darn thing fixed.

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