Iron Man Cal Rip­ken did it all on the base­ball field

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTING LIFE - STEVE MIL­TON smil­ton@thes­ 905-526-3268 | @mil­to­natthes­pec

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.

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