Solitary Man

It's a long, lonely haul to Lou Gehrig's record for besieged Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.
June 27, 1993

It is a few minutes after midnight, and a maroon van is parked in a damp, dark concrete corridor beneath the rightfield stands of Fenway Park. The game between the Boston Red Sox and the visiting Baltimore Orioles ended an hour ago, and now a tall, erect figure dressed in dark olive slacks, black loafers and a black polo shirt buttoned to the neck moves almost imperceptibly through the shadows toward the van.

A grizzled man with a huge belly and a white beard appears from behind a truck and presents a half dozen baseballs to be autographed. The dark figure, a player, stops and signs in the dim light, then walks on. The driver of the van opens the passenger door and greets the player, who slides into the front seat.

Suddenly a narrow green garage door opens with a clap of metal, and the van slips onto a side street and toward downtown Boston, never once coming into view of the players' exit, which is usually clogged with autograph seekers.

The van passes his team's hotel and continues on other, more exclusive one, which, at the player's insistence, remains unidentified here. This is where he stays—under a fictitious name.

Soon Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. will lie down to rest, another day having ended with a clandestine commute to a secret hotel in which he pretends to be someone else. He sleeps much better this way.

Ripken is both the Gehrig and the Garbo of our time. This Friday he is scheduled to play in his 1,807th consecutive major league game, leaving him 324 games—or exactly two baseball seasons—short of breaking one of the most sacrosanct records in sport: the 2,130 straight games played by New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig. The countdown should be baseball's most celebrated since Pete Rose chased Ty Cobb's career hit record in 1985. Ripken's streak, when one takes into consideration the demands of playing shortstop and the rigors of current scheduling, already rivals, if not surpasses, Gehrig's streak in grandeur. Yet it has made Ripken the object of derision of fanatical pursuit by others, with the has retreated into somber solitude.

"The one thing that weighs on me is that it has become my identity," he says. "That's what people see me as—the streak. And I have to deal with that every series in every city. The management of that is more difficult than anything else. If you only have so much concentration during the day, and you use up 75 percent of that before you get to the ballpark, something's wrong, and you've got to find a way to change that."

Ripken has moved his locker from the center of the sprawling Baltimore clubhouse at Camden Yards to a corner near an exit, the same spot used by his father, Cal Sr., before he was fired as the Orioles' third base coach after last season. Unless he has played a key role in a game, he rarely is available to the media afterward, preferring the sanctuary of the trainer's room or the players' lounge. He has further insulated himself by setting up his own p.r. firm, the Tufton Group, or, as it's known around the Orioles, Cal Inc. When he signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract with Baltimore on his 32nd birthday last August, he asked in a side letter for the right to arrange for, at his own expense, private car services and hotels separate from the team's on the road. The club, with some reluctance, agreed.

"Yes, I think he has withdrawn," says his agent, Ron Shapiro. "There's a tremendous burden created by the public and created within Cal."

The weight of that burden grows heavier when the Orioles don't win and Ripken doesn't hit. The streak is blamed for both. "It's been that way for four or five years," Ripken says, though it has never been more pronounced than this season. Before a recent run of 12 victories in 14 games, the Orioles' record stood at 21-30. And Ripken, coming off a year of career lows in home runs (14) and RBIs (72), continues to struggle, as evidenced by his .221 batting average through Sunday. In 161 games (virtually a complete season), from last June 23 through the end of last week, Ripken batted .222 with 10 home runs. He is a career .277 hitter, but it appears that this will be the sixth year in the past seven that he won't come within a dozen points of that mark, the exception having been his enormous MVP season of 1991.

Says Rose, "I think the streak is a good thing for baseball, but it's a better thing for baseball if the player is productive. If Cal Ripken plays like Cal Ripken should last year, the Orioles probably win the pennant. Unless he has a decent year, people will say he's just trying for the record. If he hits .215, is the streak a good thing? Any pressure he's getting is created by himself because of his low batting average and statistics."

Baltimore manager Johnny Oates explains Ripken's drop-off in home runs as a normal result of his advancing age, but why hasn't Ripken's 1993 batting average approached even .250, which has been his norm for the second half of his career? Ripken blames much of his trouble last year on uncertainty over his contract and his failed attempt to duplicate the crouched stance that worked so well for him in '91. It wasn't until last month that Ripken—after tinkering with the crouch so much that one scout says, "It hurt just watching him hit like that"—finally gave up and returned to an upright stance. Since then he has been driving the ball better but still not getting results.

San Francisco Giant hitting coach Bobby Bonds, as quoted last month in The San Francisco Examiner, scoffed at Ripken's insistence on playing through a prolonged slump, saying, "He's doing it for a record, but I think he's stupid for doing it. Is he helping the team or hurting the team? He's probably hurting the team. He wants to break Gehrig's record even if it will cost Baltimore the pennant."

There is no such sentiment in the Baltimore clubhouse, not among the people who know best how many ways Ripken, as clever and sure-handed afield as ever, can help the Orioles win even on his hitless nights. There is tierce support from players such as pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who bridles at Bonds's remarks, saying, "That's a guy who's back in baseball only because his son owns half the team, and he's getting on a guy who plays every day. He coached in Cleveland when I was there, and it was tough getting him to the park just to coach some days."

"If the good Lord wants him to have an off day, He'll let it rain," says Oates. "If Cal stays healthy, he'll break the record. The decision's out of my hands now."

Ripken has missed only four innings all year and just 132 in the streak, which began on May 30 of his rookie year, 1982. And not once in all those years has he served as the DH. The streak has become so large that Ripken and the club are imprisoned by their quest to protect its purity. "There are vultures ready to slap an asterisk on any streak," Oates says. "I'm not going to allow that to happen." Says Ripken, "It has nothing to do with Gehrig. It's my own view of baseball."

Has the streak sapped his strength? Not likely. Ripken is a remarkable physical specimen with tremendous energy. After one night game earlier this season in which he went 0 for 4 with an error, Ripken ran on a treadmill for an hour. Before home games he often shoots basketballs in the full-court gymnasium at his house, and after games he is known to lift weights until as late as one in the morning. This is a guy whose idea of kicking back is to miss pregame infield practice, which he did last month in Toronto for [he first time during the streak. "I volunteered to do it just to see what it was like," he says ashamedly, like a truant schoolboy coming clean. "It was strange." He hasn't missed one since.

"Physically, I don't think he gets tired," Oates says. "Mentally, he gets tired. He gets more fatigued by the extracurricular things than by the playing of the game."

Streaks seemingly gain a life of their own. As Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, who threw a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, describes it, "One of the things about staying in a groove is getting out of your own way."

The lifespan of a streak depends greatly on how a player withstands the attention it generates. Rose, for instance, gladly held news conferences before and after every game toward the end of his 44-game hitting streak in "78. "It was fun," he says. "I always liked the limelight."

Paul Molitor of the Toronto Blue Jays, who put together a 39-game hitting streak when he was with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987, remembers, "There was more of a focus on whether I was going to get a hit than there was on whether we would win the game. I'd be 0 for 2 or whatever and find myself sitting on the bench worrying about getting a hit."

Ripken's streak is reminiscent of Roger Maris's pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961 because, though Maris's bid was not literally a streak, it produced a daily watch and Maris received a lot of negative press. While chasing Ruth's sacred record, Maris lost his hair in clumps. During a trip to Baltimore in September, he also found the need for separate housing and stayed at the home of Oriole outfielder Whitey Herzog. Several days later he told Yankee manager Ralph Houk, "I need a day off. I can't stand it anymore."

"Roger had only joined the team the year before," says Yankee radio announcer Tony Kubek, who was a teammate of Maris's in 1961, "so he wasn't really known as a Yankee. A lot of people rooted for Mickey [Mantle] to get the record or for Ruth to keep it. But I think Roger realized later more people were on his side than not. Like Cal, Roger wasn't thinking of the record. He just wanted to play the game and play it right."

The difference with Ripken is that he is digging bunkers with years left to break the record. "The game has a lot of Hall of Fame players," says Shapiro, "but there's only one streak. He's a target of the collectors who are betting on the streak and the value of his signature going up."

Last year a pair of collectors staking out the Orioles' hotel carried walkie-talkies SD they could cover Ripken coming or going through cither of two entrances. People tailed him when he took taxis, with Ripken giving orders to his driver to lose the trailing car. It was "like a chase scene in a movie," says teammate Brady Anderson, who sat in on one such ride. Ripken would check into the Orioles' hotel under an assumed name, but by the second day it would become known. What really shook Ripken was the time he left his room at 12:30 a.m. to go to the ice machine. Suddenly two men jumped out from beside the machine, and for an instant Ripken feared for his safety. "There was a security risk there," says Ripken of the two men who apparently were just trying to catch a glimpse of him. "I felt like I needed to deal with it."

Ripken checked with several teammates to see if they would oppose separate travel arrangements. None did. The front office—which is so buttoned-down it requires a player to wear a blazer at all times in public on the road—agreed to Ripken's request, though it would prefer that he bunk with the rest of the club. "We do recognize this is a special circumstance," president Larry Lucchino says. "We hope it's not permanent."

Says Oates, "I've never heard anyone complain about it." But he apparently is discounting the frequent daggers from media types like Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post, who ridiculed Ripken's poor hitting by asking, "What's the excuse this year, the limo was late?" Ripken is so sensitive to such portrayals that by the third road trip of the 1993 season he stopped using Town Cars and began ordering van service.

"The worst part," Ripken says, "is you spend 11 years building a reputation as a team player, helping people out, and all of a sudden, because you stay at another hotel for other reasons, people take that away from you. Now you're selfish and putting yourself apart from the team. All you want to do is to be able to walk freely, without problems."

How badly is Ripken besieged? "I played with the Cubs, who because of WGN are popular everywhere," Sutcliffe says. "We'd have more people around the hotel in St. Louis for a three-game series than the Orioles have all year. I haven't talked to Cal about his reasons, but I know this is nothing like what Sandberg, Grace and those guys go through."

The difference, Ripken says, is he tires of constant talk of the streak. Also, he almost unfailingly grants autograph requests. Says Anderson, "He signs more autographs than any superstar I know. He doesn't know how to say no."

Team travel is not what it used to be, anyway. "With all the money in the game today," Sutcliffe says, "guys routinely go their own way—take their own car or cab." The Orioles' bus to a recent game in Boston carried only two players among its passengers. Ripken is pleased with the separate arrangements so far—he hasn't needed to change his alias all season—and so are his teammates. "The crowds at our hotels have gone way down now that the word's out that Cal's not there," pitcher Gregg Olson says.

"In my career I've seen the game change from a sport to an entertainment industry," Ripken says. "There's a whole different atmosphere at our new stadium than there was at Memorial Stadium. People come to be entertained." What he wants to be is a shortstop, and what he has become, regrettably, is a celebrity—his stardom both defined and tainted by the mere act of doing his job every day for more than 11 years.

At 9:30 on the morning of June 7, Ripken could not walk across his bedroom without having pain shoot through his swollen right knee. He had injured it the previous day in a brawl between the Orioles and the Seattle Mariners. As he had turned to free himself from the melee, his spikes had caught in the infield grass at Camden Yards, and he heard a popping sound in his right knee. One thought came to mind: "That's it. Surgery tomorrow."

Upon awakening the next morning, he was more sure of it. "Kelly," he said to his wife, "I don't think I can play tonight."

"Can you play for just an inning?" she asked.

Ripken, in wonderment, replied, "You too?"

"I thought," Kelly said in a whisper, "it was so important to you."

"If I can't play, I can live with that," he said. "I'm not going to play just for that. If it ends because of this, I'll be at peace with myself. I can accept it."

Ripken took two hours of treatment at Camden Yards. Then he took batting practice in the indoor cage under the supervision of one of the club physicians. It did not go well. "It was as close as I ever came to not playing," he says. Of course, he did play—naturally, he didn't even miss infield practice—reaching base three times in four plate appearances and making a long throw off his right leg in the ninth inning to protect a one-run lead.

Two days later, expecting a breaking ball from Oakland Athletic righthander Bob Welch, he leaned over the plate and got whacked with a fastball on his left wrist. Later that inning he slammed A's catcher Terry Steinbach in a collision at the plate with such force that Steinbach left the game dazed. Ripken was fine.

He and the streak—as inseparable as a man and his shadow—survived another week, albeit a rather hazardous one. "Now I can understand the perception of the public toward the streak," he says. "My wife looked so sad. She thought it was so important to me I'd play an inning just to keep it going. That would be selfish, and I wouldn't do it. If my own wife, the person who I'm closest to and knows me best, doesn't know that, how can I expect anyone else to know it?"

PHOTOSCOTT WACHTER TWO PHOTOSJERRY WACHTERAs the knee injury he got in a brawl showed, Ripken (8) can't duck all the game's hazards. PHOTONEIL LEIFERWhile avoiding the media crush that got to Maris (top), Ripken still obliges his fans. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE[See caption above.] PHOTOSCOTT WACHTERRipken's frustration over his poor hitting is a bigger burden to him than playing every day.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)