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This has been an era of diminished expectations, of lowered standards in sports. Today's fan, disappointed by his heroes and his pastimes, watches his games with more resignation than anticipation. It seems eccentricity has taken the place of performance, celebrity the place of character. A funny-looking guy with orange hair reclines on a basketball floor, pouting, pointedly ignoring the play of his teammates. It's entertainment, all right, but it's not what the fan remembers as sport.

And there's hardly anything to root for anymore. There are no home teams, few reliable citizens, and there's not always a World Series. This is a sad time when neither virtue nor achievement can be taken for granted. One episode after another breeds cynicism, conspires against the fan's pleasure, deadens his joy. He settles for the sullen competence that is allowed to qualify as stardom these days.

Then there comes a year like this, a year in which sports were brightened by athletes whose skill and effort and energy and personality answered the fan's yearning for true heroes.

There was a black teenager, poised to overtake a white man's game, deflecting angles of race in a race-weary year as smoothly as he swung an eight-iron. A Spaniard whose fifth consecutive Tour de France victory established a once unthinkable dominance. An unbeatable horse. A seven-foot native Nigerian whose play in the NBA postseason raised the threshold for basketball greatness. A 76-year-old football coach, 55 years on the job, the same job, who reached the 400-win milestone. And there was a pitcher who quietly revealed his preeminence, irrefutable after four straight Cy Young Awards.

Any one of them could be Sportsman of the Year, or Sportswoman, as in the case of the basketball player who not only led her team to an NCAA championship but also focused unprecedented national attention on her game. More candidates: the German who won her sixth Wimbledon, the Californian who won his third straight. A runner who won three gold medals at the track and field World Championships. A wide receiver whose desperate devotion to his game was disguised by his easy brilliance on the field.

There were so many, and they were so diverse. Yet there was something about all of them the fan recognizes, something decidedly retro and refreshing. It's hard to say what it is. Let's think about it for a minute. There's a man, close-cropped gray hair, looks older than 35, standing in the partial glow of stadium lights, standing along the railing of an empty field, signing autographs hours after a game. He doesn't really have any place to go, his family is asleep, so it's no big deal. He signs away, not to rekindle a country's love affair with its national pastime (that kind of calculation is beyond him) but because somebody wants something and it's easy to give. A teammate offers him a big leaguer's diagnosis: "You're sick."

The man shrugs. He has played in more games consecutively than any other man, dead or alive. Punched in, punched out. It's not so much a record, not a reward for greatness, as it is a by-product of sustained adolescence and, of course, unusual good health. A milestone is all it is. He knows it, too. The man shrugs, signing away beneath the stadium lights. "If you could play baseball every day," he says, "wouldn't you?"

Cal Ripken Jr., though he'll surely go into the Hall of Fame as a power-hitting shortstop, is not the greatest baseball player ever, or even of his day. But how could he not be our Sportsman of the Year? He's like the rest in our little galaxy--but more so. He's dedicated to his craft, respectful of his game and proud enough of his abilities to continue their refinement well into his 30's. As you read this (maybe the snow is drifting against your door and encouraging a couch-bound indolence), he is taking grounders in his home gym, rotating groups of five into his athletic compound for daily basketball games, lifting weights.

Ripken and the 11 others we celebrate along with him are all kind of old-fashioned, all seem to be playing for something other than money. Oh, they'll do a shoe commercial (well, Cigar won't), but when it's over, they'll all be better remembered for careers than ad campaigns. Whatever they're doing, they're doing for the love of their game. Almost to a man and a woman, they've had grind-it-out careers, athletic lifetimes in which the usual perks, if there are any, are incidental. Do you believe that Eddie Robinson has been thinking about moving up to the NFL during all these years he has been coaching football at Grambling? For that matter, do you doubt that Pete Sampras, despite his advertising duel with that other tennis player, believes that substance shall prevail over style? And amateur golfer Tiger Woods, the cub of this group: Don't you think he might be designed for the long haul? They're all a little different in their particulars, but they all give off that whiff of doggedness, stoicism, a gladiator's spirit in which all is sacrificed for performance. They assure the fan, in this grim time, that he need not settle for just anything, anymore.

The athletes we've assembled in this supporting cast can all look up to Ripken, at least this year, after the way he almost single-handedly restored the once loyal fan's faith in baseball, single-handedly turned attention to a pioneer work ethic. His "assault" on Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played was surely the least dramatic record run of all time. We knew for years that, barring an injury to Ripken, Gehrig's record was going to fall. Nobody had to wonder whether some Baltimore Oriole manager was going to yank Ripken from the lineup to rest him, or whether Ripken himself was going to beg out of the second half of a doubleheader to nurture some mysterious ache. And assuming the fan could read a baseball schedule, he knew months in advance exactly when (Sept. 6) and where (Camden Yards) the record-breaking would happen. There was nothing conditional about this record except Ripken's attendance. He didn't have to hit in his 57th straight game, pitch a seventh no-hitter, clout his 62nd home run. No record, before or since, has been set with less pressure. All Ripken had to do to set it was be there.

Yet it turned out to be one of the great feel-good events in sports--ever--and if there wasn't a lump in your throat when Ripken circled the field in a reluctant kind of victory lap, you weren't paying attention. It released a pent-up emotion after two strike-shortened seasons, a missed World Series and a general surliness had destroyed a hundred-plus years' worth of fan loyalty. The fan had long ago learned to cope with the huge salaries and the sordid commerce that had infected his game. But the owners' and players' indifference to tradition was stunning. They would sacrifice a World Series for ... what? Can anybody remember? A fan who was no stranger to nostalgia was used to wondering, Can't anybody play this game? It was an old argument, an inviting complaint, harmless. But now he had to ask the far more discouraging question, Won't anybody play this game?

Ripken would. He would play all the games he could, as hard as he could. In a sport accustomed to celebrating freaks of different and unique abilities, Ripken was instead a freak of disposition. He just liked to play baseball. You can't play 14 seasons through and through if you don't like it. Why Ripken liked baseball this much is anyone's guess, though there surely is a genetic component to it.

For him, family life was the residue of baseball; it was whatever was left over from the game. Cal Sr. was a longtime manager and coach in the Oriole organization, making stops in places like Elmira and Rochester, dragging the family along. And Cal Jr. took to the game, understanding his childhood to be privileged--taking infield practice with future major leaguers or just listening to his father detail the Oriole cutoff play. As a 12-year-old he was developing resource material.

Still, heredity doesn't account for the sense of obligation and appreciation he has for baseball. Nor does his entry into pro ball, when scouts placed him on the slow track, to the extent they put him on any track at all. Remember that Ripken was not encouraged to believe he had any special talents back in 1978, when eight shortstops were picked ahead of him in the baseball draft.

Sixteen years later he has outlasted those eight and plenty more. His endurance has become the new standard of sport, and his run for the record couldn't have been more timely. In an era of slouching gods, this devotion to duty was a curative. Here was Ripken, looking somewhat old in his gray-stubble buzz cut, coming to the park every day. It helped that he didn't bounce around, didn't exaggerate his love of the game, didn't act like some caricatured goof from a Norman Rockwell painting. He just kept coming to work because ... why wouldn't you? "Look," he says, wholly ignorant of the heavenly glow he might attach to his myth with this statement, "the season's long, 162 games, and a pennant could be decided in any one of them. You never know which one. But do you want to take a chance? Is that the game you'd want to sit out?"

Of course, this being the era it is, not everybody respected the purity of his motives. Since everything seems to have merchandising possibilities these days, it was natural that Ripken's march on the great Gehrig, who had died so dramatically, would be suspect for some. It was a gimmick, a staged attack. He could have and should have taken himself out plenty of times by now. In fact, it was suggested last July by columnist Robert Lipsyte (playfully, we assume) in The New York Times that Ripken might better honor his own name by honoring Gehrig's. He should take a day off before Sept. 5 and then resume playing. "The idea wasn't all that fresh," says Ripken. "It actually was put to me about three years ago, by I won't say who. 'Think of the marketing possibilities,' I was told. Well, I wasn't doing this for a record in the first place, so I wasn't going to not do it for the record either. It never entered my mind."

Most people lauded his effort, however. A happy side effect of the Streak was encountered in newspapers throughout the country, demonstrating anew that positive values can leak from sports into the greater parts of our culture. Usually some horrible issue like domestic violence or drug use among athletes would spill out of the sports pages and into the news sections, as if lifestyles of the rich and spoiled might be instructive to the general populace. But this time Ripken's example prompted a hurried search for people with unusual work records. Think about it: Did your hometown newspaper or your local TV station fail to come up with a nurse who hadn't missed a day in 37 years, a warehouseman who hadn't been sick in 25? Going to work every day was, generally, a good idea, or used to be thought so. It seemed to suggest something adult, like responsibility. And by the way, did anyone ever tell that teacher in your town, that assembly-line worker, to knock off that crazy consecutive-workday stunt and take a day off?

Of course, no country, not even one as abashedly sentimental as ours, would reward an athlete with affection based on attendance. Ripken did more than just show up every day; he was and is a good player. Maybe his offensive numbers don't stack up with Gehrig's, but they'll do for a shortstop of any generation. No other shortstop has hit so many home runs--at least 20 in each of his first 10 full seasons and 327 in all. Few have fielded so flawlessly for so long: highest fielding percentage for a shortstop (.996) in a season, only 75 errors in the last seven seasons combined. Just in case you thought the Streak was the product of some Baltimore hype, remember that he was chosen by fans across the nation to start in 13 straight All-Star Games.

Ripken deserved to play all 2,153 consecutive games, his total at the end of the season. Oh, there were whispers in 1990, when Ripken endured a prolonged slump. After hitting .257 the year before, he was getting extra scrutiny for a sub-.220 batting average in mid-June. Ripken says now that it was during that time that he came the closest to interrupting the Streak; he was willing to sit, but teammate Rick Sutcliffe cautioned him that rest might not be the cure-all he was looking for. "Just fix what's broken," Sutcliffe told him. In 1991 Ripken was the American League MVP--he hit .323 with 34 home runs and 114 RBIs in one of the best years ever by a shortstop--and then the Streak didn't seem like such a bad thing. "The word stubborn does come to mind," says Ripken.

Actually, stubborn is the perfect word. A devotion to principle, whether that principle makes much sense to the rest of us, is usually something to marvel at. And Ripken's devotion to his principle--to play well and at every opportunity--knows no season. His conditioning program goes well beyond what makes sense. His vast home gym is an altar to physical fitness. And Ripken believes he has only so many hours of concentration available to him on any given day, and he likes to save them for the game. As available as he may seem to the public, signing autographs into the wee hours, he is actually extremely protective of his private time with his wife, Kelly (a sometime basketball opponent), and their children, Rachel, 6, and Ryan, 2. A photographer on a recent People magazine shoot discovered this when his session spilled over into Ripken's personal schedule. Cal had to pick up Rachel at school, and that was that. The photographer was left mouth agape, holding his light meters as Ripken defiantly drove away.

It is no doubt infuriating to today's athletes that our expectations of them are contradictory. We want them to behave as adults, even though we want them to play with the enthusiasm of children. We want them to act modestly, even though we shower them with attention. We want them to treat their job like work, even though we consider it a game. Not many athletes of any generation can deal gracefully with our antithetical yearnings; Ripken is one of the few.

Even in the gray light of November in Baltimore, he was still trying to understand all the fuss. "Emotionally, I feel it," he said, "but intellectually, I don't get it." The emotion, he admitted, was overwhelming. When the number hanging from the warehouse beyond rightfield at Camden Yards changed to 2,131--well, he knew something larger than any streak was at work. He wonders how he ever got through his little speech that night, although there is no mystery to us. (He went over it 10 times in his office, until he no longer choked up upon references to his wife and mother.) He wonders how he ever got through any of it. Of course, another season approaches. And the time he thought he would be given to understand the events of last summer has flown. A tape of The Pride of the Yankees, which he is curious about ("I hear that the movie speech is different from the real one," he says) is still on a coffee table. So is the video of his own milestone night. He'll get to it all someday. But November is already disappearing, and spring training is beginning to loom, and it seems as if there are more games to play. He has to work out.

What we see in Cal Ripken is not often visible in sports. But the grateful fan of 1995 could find plenty of other examples of similar excellence and dedication, whereas in recent years he hadn't been able to count on finding one. There were other cases of superior performance quietly sustained over time. Take Eddie Robinson, who has toiled so long and so steadily at Grambling that--well, who better to turn to for comment than Ripken. "He might be in a class by himself," the Iron Man says. Robinson hasn't missed a game at Grambling since 1941, when he began coaching there, and hasn't missed too many chances for victory either. He notched win number 400 this year but had long since put distance between himself and the man he had passed in becoming the winningest college football coach, Bear Bryant, who had just 323. What's more, 205 of his players have gone on to play in the NFL. Robinson, who has coached all his life at a low-profile, historically black college, has needed those kinds of numbers to get recognition.

Hakeem Olajuwon, though not quite the veteran Robinson is, reflects the same theme of sustained excellence. At age 32, he led the Houston Rockets to their second straight NBA championship with a postseason performance that was nearly transcendent. His play against the league's Most Valuable Player, David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, in the Western Conference finals nearly caused MVP voters to demand a chance to recast their ballots. His 35.3 points a game against the Spurs--"People will be talking about that series and how he played for many, many years," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich--was attention-getting. And then, in the Finals against the Orlando Magic, he neutralized Shaquille O'Neal in a Houston sweep that cemented Olajuwon's greatness for all time.

Similarly, Atlanta Brave righthander Greg Maddux, 29, does not mean to sketch his artistry over the course of a season as much as to paint it against a career. Like Ripken, Maddux has decided that the trick is not just to have a great year but to have a great year and then do it again and again. The 1995 Cy Young Award, his fourth straight--no pitcher ever had won more than two straight--only hinted at the dominance he has enjoyed in the National League. Maddux, who led the major leagues with a 1.56 ERA in '94 and a 1.63 mark in '95, became the first pitcher since Walter Johnson and Hippo Vaughn in 1918 and '19 to have an ERA lower than 1.80 in consecutive seasons. Maddux, whose numbers are often compared with Sandy Koufax's, has not achieved them with Koufax's fastball or with any flamboyance whatsoever. In fact, he believes the lower a profile he keeps, the lower an ERA he'll have. "I'm not going to do anything or say anything that makes a hitter remember me," he said. So he lies low, and the mystery he thereby creates extends to the batter's box. Says Atlanta catcher Charlie O'Brien, "I've never seen so many guys leaving the plate saying, 'Damn, how did he do that?'"

But our galaxy of worthy heroes isn't filled just with cagey veterans, people of athletic obstinacy, players of unusual longevity. There is still a place for brilliance, promise, the excitement provided by new stars rising. Remember, Ripken was young once too. (He won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1982.) Now it's the 19-year-old Tiger Woods, the 28-year-old Michael Johnson and the 22-year-old Rebecca Lobo. And, of course, the stallion Cigar. He's only five.

Cigar was the first stakes champion to have an undefeated year since 1980, when Spectacular Bid also went 10 for 10. By winning the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall, Cigar ran his two-year winning streak to 12 races, neared the alltime career money mark and invited comparisons to legends like Secretariat and Seattle Slew. That may be generous, but it's still impressive for a horse (named for an aeronautical checkpoint over the Gulf of Mexico, not a cheroot, by the way) who was unraced at 2 and who had just one win in 11 starts, all on turf, during his 3- and 4-year-old campaigns. For the troubled sport of thoroughbred racing, where there had been no superstars for too long, Cigar became a glamour boy with a blue-collar heart.

Lobo, a center-forward for the 35-0 Connecticut Huskies, was just as charismatic. She made women's basketball a featured sport. UConn sold 6,541 season tickets before Lobo's senior season, and after she led the Huskies to the national title, her school signed a $2.28 million TV contract with a local station. ESPN agreed to televise 39 more women's basketball games nationally in 1995-96 than it had last season. Lobo, who's now with the U.S. women's national team and is headed for this summer's Olympics in Atlanta, is what you call an impact player. She averaged 17.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 3.6 assists for a UConn team that outscored opponents by an average of 33 points. You can almost understand her girlhood dream of playing in the NBA: She wrote Red Auerbach a letter in the fourth grade promising to be "the first girl to play for the Celtics."

No offense to Carl Lewis and Butch Reynolds, who have competed at a high enough level long enough to make Ripken proud, but where is the next generation of world-class track athlete? Well, he has arrived in the form of Johnson, who--onetime high school nerd, not so long out of Baylor--won both the 200- and 400-meter races at the World Championships in Sweden in August. Johnson's 400-meter time of 43.39 was .1 of a second shy of Reynolds's long-standing world record, but Johnson's performance came under more demanding circumstances. Not only did Johnson have to run three flat-out 400 heats to make the final, and not only was he doubling in the 200, but he was also anchoring the victorious U.S. 4x400-meter relay team. No wonder, with this display of speed, versatility and durability, Johnson drew comparisons to Jesse Owens.

Johnson figures to leave a big mark on track and field by the time he is through, and Woods seems destined to do likewise in golf. Just a sophomore at Stanford, he has already won back-to-back U.S. Amateur titles, and his dramatic finishes in both have been powerful teasers for fans awaiting the next Jack Nicklaus. The pro career of Woods, a prodigy schooled well and easily by his father, Earl, is so eagerly anticipated that even as Woods remains an amateur, he is being besieged by endorsement possibilities. And why not? He's handsome, talkative and hits the ball a mile.

And he has heart too--witness his 140-yard second shot on the 18th hole of the final match of this year's U.S. Amateur. He dropped the ball to within 18 inches of the cup to clinch the championship. But in matters cardiac (both literal and figurative) no athlete in 1995 matched the 31-year-old Indurain, whose fifth straight Tour de France victory was testimony to some otherworldly conditioning. The cycling world is filled with stories of Indurain's resting pulse rate and his lung capacity, but a quick glance at his career points to a different kind of endurance. This now indomitable rider was actually unable to finish the race in his first two tries, in '85 and '86. Thereafter he finished 97th, 47th, 17th, 10th and then, finally, first, in '91. It doesn't sound so much like superior cardiopulmonary parts as just--what did Ripken call it? Stubbornness.

Jerry Rice is more endorsement-friendly in these parts than Indurain. But, like Indurain, he does not rely on accidents of talent to achieve his goals. Rice, the best receiver ever--he has more touchdown catches, 143, than anyone in NFL history--has been fine-tuning his body for years. His work ethic frightens competitors and colleagues alike, who hope--hope!--you don't have to put that much effort into the game. But to be the best year after year, you do. Rice, who last season helped the San Francisco 49ers to a third Super Bowl victory in seven years, is another Ripken, but more exciting. He didn't miss a game in four years of college and hasn't missed one in 11 years as a pro, and at 33 he hasn't been slowed by a lifetime of hits over the middle. Niner quarterback Steve Young, who delivered the ball to Rice and was not incidental to the 1994 Super Bowl championship, marvels that his wideout, who was once thought too slow to play his position in the NFL, has "speed you can't clock."

And how could we not include Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf in our group, considering that each finished No. 1 in tennis for the third consecutive year. Sampras, who last season won five titles, including those at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and literally climbed off the clay to lead America over Russia in the Davis Cup final, had to overcome his toughest challenge in a tournament he didn't even win. He played on with tears in his eyes at the Australian Open after learning that his friend and coach Tim Gullikson had malignant brain tumors. Sampras, who has long taken a backseat to Andre Agassi when it comes to endorsements, may still be thought of as too quiet, too stolid, a little too sober. But after what happened in Melbourne and in Moscow, no one can deny that he has a heart as good and strong as his game. And what a game he possesses. Even Agassi, outclassed by Sampras in the U.S. Open, was impressed by Pistol Pete's whistling aces. "The game of the future," Agassi said.

Graf likewise had a bittersweet year, despite winning nine tournaments, including Wimbledon and the U.S. and French Opens. She had to contend with her father-manager's being jailed in Germany for evading the payment of millions in income taxes on her earnings. Her achievements on the court were virtually overshadowed by the comeback of Monica Seles. Yet, like Sampras, she seemed more human in victory.

How long has it been since the fan has had to acknowledge the athlete's give instead of his take? Since he was forced to recognize an athlete's diligence, stability, effort? It feels as if it has been ages, doesn't it, since sports was something other than a playful preamble to an advertising career? But at least the fan had this year to arrest his growing cynicism. And it could happen again. Maybe the fan just needs to know where to look: down the first base line, where in the half glow of stadium lights a gray-haired guy signs autographs into the wee hours.