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.
The van passes his team's hotel and continues on to another,
which, at the player's insistence, remains unidentified here.
This is where he stays--under a fictitious name.
Soon Cal 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 by some
and of fanatical pursuit by others, with the result that he 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, Ripken 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,
"Yes, I think he has withdrawn," says his agent, Ron Shapiro.
"There's a tremendous burden created by the public and created
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 June 27. In 161 games (virtually a
complete season), from June 23, 1992, through June 19, 1993,
Ripken batted .222 with 13 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 played like Cal Ripken should have last year, the
Orioles probably would have won the pennant. Unless he has a
decent year this season, 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
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 in '92 on uncertainty over his
contract and his failed attempt to duplicate the crouched stance
that worked so well for him the year before.
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 fierce 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."
Has the Streak sapped Ripken's strength? Not likely. He 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 the 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 life span 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 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 before he breaks 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
value of his signature going up."
Last year a pair of collectors staking out the Orioles' hotel
carried walkie-talkies so they could cover Ripken coming or
going through either 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 Oriole front
office 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 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. The Orioles' bus
to a recent game carried only two players. "With all the money
in the game today," Sutcliffe says, "guys routinely take their
own car or cab." 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.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WACHTER [Cal Ripken Jr. batting]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE THE BURDEN DESPITE THE ONSLAUGHT OF AUTOGRAPH HOUNDS, RIPKEN COULDN'T SAY NO. [Cal Ripken Jr. signing autographs]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WACHTER THE BURDEN FRUSTRATIONS AROSE WHEN PEOPLE CONTINUED TO QUESTION RIPKEN'S MOTIVES. [Cal Ripken Jr.]