ON THE afternoon of April 19, Cal Ripken Jr. glided onstage to
play shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles in their 1990 home
opener against the Detroit Tigers. Cheers of affection cascaded
down from the fans at Memorial Stadium.
The stadium is a relic, to be consigned to the past in the
spring of 1992 when the Orioles move into their new waterfront
home near Camden Yards. People say that as a boy Babe Ruth
played in the neighborhood where the new ballpark will be built,
and one day people will say that Ripken played there, too. But
these remembrances of Ripken are likely to be unspectacular,
un-Ruthian; they will be hazy, imprecise shadows of a big man
playing shortstop with a stately but eager cool.
In that home opener at Memorial Stadium, Ripken was, as usual,
most noticeable for the things he did not do. He did not make
an error. He did not mess up a double play. After the game
Ripken played no clubhouse pranks and kicked no watercoolers. He
didn't rip the manager or offer clever quips to reporters or
trade noisy jokes with his teammates. He dressed quietly and
drove his new Lincoln Continental to his recently acquired
spread near suburban Reisterstown, Md., to his wife,
Kelly--they've been married 2 1/2 years--and his daughter,
Rachel, born just last November. Wife, daughter, house, car:
Their combined longevity in Ripken's life is less than that of
On Tuesday of this week [June 19, 1990] Ripken played in his
1,308th consecutive major league game, surpassing Yankee and Red
Sox shortstop Everett Scott's streak, set from 1916 to 1925.
Ripken has played in every Baltimore game since May 30, 1982. In
the eight years of the Streak, he has married, had a child, seen
his life evolve and change. In those eight years the Orioles'
lineup card has seen a complete transformation, except for one
constant: SS--Cal Ripken Jr.
Yet, by passing Scott, Ripken moves only into second place on
the alltime list. There is, of course, still the matter of Lou
Gehrig and his 2,130 consecutive games played, the record they
say will never be broken. Ripken would need five more seasons to
do the breaking, and nobody really expects that to happen. But
the world will be watching. For all his mastery as an athlete,
Ripken is being measured by time, and he is a man who feels
imprisoned by it. "The game never ends," says the 29-year-old
Ripken, running his hands through hair now shot with gray,
"because there's always another one."
For Ripken, ball games come not in sets of three or four or
seven, but in sets of 162. In the age of the space shuttle, the
tanning salon and the 20-second sound bite, how can this be?
More important, how long can it continue? "There's no pressure
on Cal," says his father, Baltimore third base coach Cal Ripken
Sr., a man who seems to be constructed of rawhide lines pulled
taut. "No pressure in it. You go to the ballpark and do the best
job you possibly can that day. Cal always wanted to be as good a
professional baseball player as possible."
And what of the Streak? When will it end? "I have no idea," says
On the final weekend of last season's American League East race,
during a game between the eventual division champions, the
Toronto Blue Jays, and the Orioles, destined for second, the
broadcast booth in the SkyDome was filled with commentary.
"The problem I have with Cal is that he changes his stance so
much," said the Oriole living legend, Brooks Robinson. "He's
trying to pull everything."
"The man of many stances," said Jim Palmer, the ace of Oriole
aces. "The question about Cal is, after playing all those games,
is he getting tired?"
At that moment Ripken, a big man who is still called Junior, was
playing in game number 1,248 and, consequently or not, having a
weak at bat. He flied out to center.
In a season in which he batted only .257, it somehow was
overlooked that Ripken slugged 21 homers to become the first
shortstop in history to have eight straight 20 home run seasons,
supplanting Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, in the record books. He would
complete the year with a 47-game errorless streak and only eight
errors all told. Ripken fielded at a .9902 percentage and led
major league shortstops in putouts, assists, double plays and
total chances. He led all shortstops in homers and RBIs (93) for
the sixth time in seven years. He started his sixth consecutive
One might expect that in Baltimore this velvet-gloved iron man,
this long-ball shortstop, would enjoy the stature of local hero.
That is not the case. Ripken is rigorously roasted on radio
call-in talk shows all around Chesapeake Bay, chided for the
RBIs he didn't get, accused of not being a leader, bad-mouthed
for his sub-.220 batting average this season, even
second-guessed over his determination to play every day. The
implications are obvious: Junior is pressing. Maybe Junior could
use a rest. You're tired, aren't you, Junior?
"Not particularly," says Ripken. "But I hear them."
The skeptical voices are raised elsewhere, too. In late May,
Patrick Reusse, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune,
put Ripken on his "All-Washed-Up" team (prompting a quick and
angry TV response from Palmer). In a more reasoned critique,
Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau recently said, "Ripken's
pursuit [of the Streak] is counterproductive both to himself and
his team." A former Baltimore teammate, veteran catcher Rick
Dempsey, suggested from Los Angeles last year that taking an
occasional day off might do Junior good. "Well, I'll never
know," says Ripken, jaw locked. "It'll never happen."
Ripken's batting average so far this season--it bottomed out at
.208 on June 5--hasn't done much to quiet his detractors. But he
still is among the team leaders in homers (seven), runs (33) and
RBIs (30). He quickly dismisses those who point to his batting
average. "Two-out singles to right with nobody on," Ripken says,
his lip curling ever so slightly. "Do they drive in runs? I'm
here to drive the ball. I won't cut down on my swing to hit .280
so the critics can be happy and the Orioles can finish fifth."
Ripken has never been anything but an Oriole. In July 1988,
during a 107-loss season for the O's and not long after Cal Sr.
was replaced as the Baltimore manager, Ripken passed up free
agency and re-signed with the Orioles for three years at around
$2.45 million per. Ripken is an Oriole for life, and to some
Baltimore minds that makes him community property. Junior, they
say, if you aren't hitting, you must be tired. Maybe it's time
to sit down before you let us down.
There are other voices, though. "I'm the batting instructor and
I'm not complaining," says Tom McCraw, Baltimore's hitting
coach. "Cal is a superb athlete and a great pro. He'll hit. What
you can't see is how Cal dominates the mental side of the game.
You'd have to watch him every day, and watch him close."
On the evening of Sept. 6, 1989, the Cleveland Indians were in
the process of drubbing Baltimore 9-0. The blowout gave Oriole
manager Frank Robinson a chance to see what his bonus-baby
rookie pitcher, Ben McDonald, could do. With the Indians ahead
4-0 in the top of the third inning, McDonald made his major
league debut. The situation he faced was runners at first and
third, one out and Cory Snyder at the plate. Ripken jogged to
the mound to greet the kid.
"Make sure you come to a stop, Ben," Ripken told him. "Let us
get the outs for you. That's what we're here for."
McDonald's first pitch was just outside to the righthanded
Snyder, who hit a slow two-hopper back up the middle. Ripken,
having seen catcher Bob Melvin's sign, had positioned himself
slightly shallower and more to his left than usual. His big
hands seemed to wave at each other as he caught the ball and
flipped toward second to begin a 6-4-3 double play. McDonald had
recorded two outs with his first major league pitch.
"I had a couple of balks in the minors," said McDonald later.
"Cal knew that. And he wanted me to know that if the ball was
hit back to me, he'd be covering. I'd heard he knows the game.
Even minor leaguers know that about Junior."
"The first and last rule of baseball, as I was taught it," says
Ripken, "is to catch the ball, then to know what to do with it
once you do. You have to know the hitters, how they hit with two
strikes, how they hit with two balls. Not from scouting reports,
necessarily. I've formed that bank myself, by noticing what's
been going on around me all my life.
"It comes down to you've got to play games. You've got to play
as many games as you can. Since there are so many possible
plays, you can't get it all unless you're there every day. You
can't get it from a book. You play games. And after you play so
many games, experience so many different ground balls, runners,
hitters and situations, you learn to prepare for each hitter,
each count, each pitch, each option--even each potential injury."
Baseball can be a dangerous game of hard swings, high spikes,
purpose pitches, brawls, inrushing outfielders and outrushing
infielders. Ripken's streak is made more amazing by the fact
that he plays shortstop, which means he must make the pivot at
second. "It doesn't matter who's down there," says Los Angeles
Dodger slugger Kirk Gibson. "Whoever turns the pivot has got to
"My size helps me on the pivot," says Ripken. "And technique,
too. When I'm coming across the bag, I use the 'flip.' The flip
[a sidearm toss] is my throw, for accuracy and consistency
reasons. More accurate. Less wear and tear. Rick Burleson used
to throw everything hard, and he tore his rotator cuff. My throw
and my size protect me on the pivot. The runners are in front of
me. They will pull back, one way or another. But there have been
a couple of, uh, incidents of collision."
Darrell Miller, a former catcher in the Baltimore organization,
remembers a game a few years ago when he was playing with the
California Angels. Miller barreled into second base as Ripken
was making the pivot. Sometimes Ripken can throw, leap and tuck
all in one motion. This time he took the throw, fired and
braced. Miller, expecting to intersect with an airborne Ripken,
instead ran into a tree of a man and had his wind knocked out.
Ripken barely bounced off the bag. A moment later the 210-pound
Miller gasped and said, "Hey, you all right?" Junior smiled. So
did Miller before saying, "I can't believe it was me asking you."
Most everybody else in this working world calls in sick every
now and then. "It's been said I'm a prisoner of the Streak,"
says Ripken, as if to mean he doesn't disagree with this
assessment yet will not offer it up for public sympathy. Are you
a prisoner of the Streak? "I don't feel all that free, if that's
what you mean," he says.
Ripken naturally shies from public scrutiny and displays few of
the tics or foibles that might invite attention--unless pounding
the brewskies from time to time, or not gladly suffering fools
or criticism, or falling into an occasional lurch of profanity
constitute terrible character flaws. But spare him any adulation.
"Superstar? Oh, no. I don't know if I want that," he says. "I've
seen what that can do. Anyway, I don't think I stack up with the
great talents in the league. I have talent, no doubt. My
advantage is that I know the game well. The reason is that I
grew up in it and had a good teacher in my father. I'm sure that
whatever I am as a man and as a ballplayer comes from the way I
Ripken has hit better than .300 twice, in 1983 and '84, but his
average has been in decline over the last four years, falling to
a career-low .252 in '87. He has struggled mightily at the plate
this season. And the critics have intensified their watch.
"People don't understand," says Ripken. "And what can I tell
them? Have you heard the radio call-in shows?"
His comfort is now found at home, with Kelly and Rachel. "It's a
learning process all over again," he says of life with his
infant daughter. "It changes you. And you know, you find out
that as hard as you've worked for one thing, the only thing that
really matters is life itself. If I have a bad day and people
heckle me and the radio shows rip me, I go home to my little
girl. She thinks I'm perfect. I stayed in Baltimore because
everything was in place and secure. Things are fine, but I know
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [Cal Ripken Jr. leaning against memorial to Lou Gehrig]
COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY NESTE CHASING GEHRIG THOUGH CRITICS BEGAN TO HOWL, NO ONE QUESTIONED THE IRON MAN'S PLAY IN THE FIELD. [Cal Ripken Jr.]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER CHASING GEHRIG RIPKEN ATTRIBUTED HIS WEAK HITTING TO MECHANICS, BUT OTHERS WONDERED IF HE WAS TIRED. [Cal Ripken Jr. batting]