Iron Man Cal Ripken did it all on the baseball field
Now they call him the Iron Man, after he smashed Lou Gehrig’s “unbeatable” record for consecutive games played, but we used to call him the all-star’s all-star. In a career that spanned 21 years, Cal Ripken Jr. was elected to the major league baseball Summer Classic 19 times. As they used to say up in Huntsville, I got to thinkin’ on him the other day as I watched the Home Run Derby, arguably the best part of any of the four major league all-star games. I was never a big fan of the Home Run Derby until I was actually at one, which was in SkyDome in 1991, and the energy and excitement was palpable. And Ripken and Cec Fielder pulled the power cord on the generator. Fielder, a former Jay and Prince’s dad, yanked two bombs 450 feet — that was long before the precise measuring tools we have today — and Ripken hit 12 dingers over the final rounds, to more than double runner-up Paul O’Neill who had only five. That ratio of victory has rarely, if ever, been matched. It was complete dominance. That doesn’t sound anything like the derby numbers put up by Aaron Judge this year or Josh Hamilton and Bobby Abreu in the early 2000s, but in 1991, each non-homer was considered an out, and 10 outs ended your time at bat. That significantly changes the pressure, the psychology, and the overall results. Like Derek Jeter, whose early years overlapped Ripken’s latter ones, Ripken was a Hall of Fame shortstop (they stand 1-3 in total hits by shortstops with Honus Wagner in between) who spent his entire season with one team. And remember, at just about every level, the shortstop is the best athlete on the team. Unlike Jeter, or anyone else, he played hundreds and hundreds of games in a row at one of the most physically demanding and collisionprone (double plays) positions in the game, without suffering damaging-enough injuries to curtail his streak. What I remember most about that all-star break was the ability to ‘reach’ Ripken during it. Ripken was from a deep baseball family (his father had been his manager with the Orioles and actually pulled his son from a game at Toronto’s Exhibition Place four years earlier to end his consecutive-innings streak at a ridiculous 8,243) and, while pleasant and nonconfrontational, he was usually all-business, stoic and generic-phrased during the season. But sitting beside him for an hour in the dugout with a couple of other writers during all-star break workouts in Toronto, I was treated to a broader Cal Ripken, a more philosophical one, a player who showed genuine interest in somebody else’s interest in him. His answers to our questions dug deep, especially when I asked him if he’d ever suffered career prejudice about being too tall, at sixfoot-four, to play shortstop. He would never have answered that honestly after a regular season game, but that day got right into it, explaining how the Orioles organization had been adamant that he would always play third base, not shortstop, despite their obvious difficulty in replacing the retired Mark Belanger in the six-hole. He was considered too lengthy to get down on the ball with any range, too good a hitter, in both power and average, to expend the defensive energy shortstop required. By the time Toronto had its first all-star game, Ripken was at 1,491 games in a row, almost all at shortstop (he’d played third base in his first few months). It was then the second-longest of all time and two thirds of the way to Gehrig’s 2,130 which he passed in September of 1995. But what struck me was that while Pete Rose had known and repeated every tiny detail about Ty Cobb, the icon he had chased for the most-hits record, Ripken was not preoccupied with Gehrig. This is how he described it: “I tend to go the other way. I know he was a super ballplayer. I saw the movie, the ‘Luckiest man in baseball’ speech, but that’s about it. “Maybe I’ve gone to the other extreme. I try not to develop the need to play every day. I feel that if I looked more into it and became obsessed with Gehrig, I’d start to change my approach.” And that approach was working. Four years earlier, there was a widespread perception that Ripken’s everydayness was costing him at the end of the season, wearing him down on the rare opportunity that his Orioles were in a title race. (He played in only three post-seasons in 21 years). That’s why his dad benched him late in that memorable game of 1987 when the Jays were busying hitting 10 home runs, ending his inningsplayed streak. In 1991, he came into the all-star break leading the league with a .348 batting average, the first shortstop to do that in 44 years and just the third ever, and was coming off a season with the fewest (3) errors ever by a middle infielder. After sending the crowd into a tizzy with his Home Run Derby victory, Ripken was also great the next night, with his three-run dinger giving the American League the all-star game victory, and himself his first all-star game MVP award. He went on to be named American League MVP for the second time and win his first Gold Glove Award. One of the last things he said to our little group before he left was, “I like to think I’m only halfway through my career.” He was 10-and-a-half seasons in, and he played another 10-and-a-half years. In 1991, he was even having a great season with the crystal ball
Cal Ripken Jr. was elected to the baseball all-star game 19 times.