Pressure is ordering leadoff with Cal Ripken on deck. When the
waitress arrives at the dinner table I share with the healthiest
player in the history of baseball, I know there will be talk of
vegetables. Lots of vegetables. Maybe some fish. A glass of
juice, or perhaps bottled water. I am sure this guy's arteries
flow like the Colorado during the spring runoff. He's Jack
LaLanne in spikes. I make the easy choice. "Grilled chicken
sandwich," I say, burning with guilt about the unspoken side of
fries that will accompany it.
Then Ripken, who is famished after a long spring training day in
brutal Florida heat, swings from the heels: He'll have the ribs
and fries and a bottle of mass-brewed beer and an order of
whatever appetizer can be whisked in front of him the fastest.
He is delighted when told it's the fried chicken wings that fly.
Withholding something between a gasp and a burst of laughter, I
realize my mistake. Ripken is a simple man in a complicated
time. What a relief for the rest of us.
A parade of people--grandmothers, middle-aged men, schoolgirls,
a mother and daughter, boys not yet born when he played his
first big league game--keep interrupting his dinner for an
autograph. Most of them approach him by saying, "I don't want to
bother you while you're eating ...," with the obvious intention
of doing exactly that. Ripken happily obliges them all, pausing
only to clean the grease from his fingers before signing. Only
weeks after the end of the worst strike in sports history,
Ripken is beloved more than ever; not only is he immune to the
virus that has weakened baseball, but for some he's also an
antidote to the infection.
Think about this: The worst thing anyone ever said about Cal
Ripken is that he never misses a game.
"What I really hate is that every time I get in a slump," Ripken
said nine years ago, "they say it's because I'm tired from
playing so much. Always, I'm tired. I'm not tired. It's not fair."
He was 25 years old when he said that, not yet one third of the
way to eclipsing Lou Gehrig. He has played almost his entire
career with people fussing so much about the Streak that they
have missed the real artistry of the man. Take away the Streak
and Ripken is still a Hall of Famer.
Cooperstown could cast an impressive plaque right now--never mind
the mandatory five-year wait after retirement--without ever
mentioning the Streak: "No shortstop hit more home runs in a
career, made fewer errors in a season or handled more
consecutive chances flawlessly. He is the only player to start
the All-Star Game in 12 consecutive years. A two-time MVP, he
won the awards eight years apart, a span matched only by Joe
DiMaggio and Willie Mays. He has played the game with
intelligence, grace, passion and, above all, respect."
Ripken will almost certainly finish his career without changing
teams, without trash-talking an opponent, without checking into
a rehab center, without cutting an album and without winding up
under the "Jurisprudence" heading in your sports section.
That alone puts him in select company in these days of packaged
sports stars who are long on style but short on substance.
After dinner that night in Florida, Ripken and I carried our
conversation into the restaurant parking lot. He opened the back
to his blue rental van--not exactly the vehicle of choice for the
image-conscious--and offered me a drink. He had a cooler of
Unplugged from the protocol and peer pressure of the clubhouse,
Ripken talked deep into the night over plastic bottle after
plastic bottle. He marveled at his daughter's courage upon
receiving stitches; recalled the friendliness of minor league
towns in North Carolina ("It's probably where I'd live if I
didn't live in Maryland"); debunked the popular notion that
shortstops love to low-bridge runners on double plays ("A lot of
times you throw from down low because that's where you get the
feed"); revealed a nugget from his amazingly vast catalog of
knowledge of opponents ("The one guy who ran down the line hard
every single time was Robin Yount"); and expressed the pain he
has felt when accused of selfishness during the Streak ("It will
probably die down, especially this year, but I felt everything I
worked for as a team player was taken away in the minds of some
By the time he motored off in that van, it was 1:30 in the
morning, and Ripken had left no doubt what fuels his engine:
family and the playing of the game of baseball. Simple passions.
He is a player for all time, though never more needed than in