Cal Ripken Is No Hero

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My editors didn't want to run this story. For years, in fact, they haven't cared to print what I write. They think that I've lost a few miles-per-hour off my similes, that I'm a little slow in picking up inferences, that I don't turn the double entendre the way I used to. Yet, each week, they cave in and publish another one of my stories. They have to, you see. Because I've been around a long time. And I've got ... The Streak.

Actually, my editors don't feel that way; I only wish they did. But if they did accede to my need to be published every week, they'd be a lot like baseball fans. At least, they'd be like the ones who voted in Major League Baseball's Memorable Moments poll, the results of which were announced Wednesday night before Game 4 of the World Series at the San Francisco Giants' Pacific Bell Park.

10. Ryan's 7th no-hitter
9. DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak
7. Ted Williams hits .406
6. Rose passes Cobb for hits
5. Gehrig's farewell speech
4. McGwire and Sosa chase Maris
3. Robinson breaks color barrier
2. Aaron passes Ruth for HRs
1. Ripken becomes Iron Man

 Shot Heard 'Round the World
 Mays' '54 Series catch
 Maz's Series-ending HR in '60
 Fisk goes deep into the night
 Mets' mircale '86 comeback

They had plenty to choose from, among all the spectacular feats in the sport's 126-year history: making a sensational catch (Willie Mays, 1954), pitching a perfect game (Don Larsen, 1956), smashing a thrilling homer (Bill Mazeroski, 1960, or Carlton Fisk, 1975), hitting a squibbler that took an amazin' bounce (Mookie Wilson, 1986). But they chose one that took no athletic ability at all: walking onto a baseball field at the beginning of a game. When Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles did that on September 6, 1995, he broke Lou Gehrig's iron-man record of 2,130 consecutive games. Ladies and gentlemen, your all-time Most Memorable Baseball Moment.

Back in '95, Ripken's achievement was lionized by sportswriters as one that brought fans back to the game and cleared some of the rancorous smog lingering after the season-ending strike the year before. The participants in the MLB poll surely meant their vote for Ripken as a kind of lunchpail prize: for 13-plus years the guy clocked in, played every day despite sprained ankles and an aching back, acted like a working man, gave himself up for the team. Wednesday night, Billy Crystal, host for the pre-game celebration, said of Ripken, "He is everything that baseball should be."

I say that Ripken is a lot of what baseball has become: a high-salaried star for whom a personal goal eventually becomes more important than helping the team.

Ripken was also lucky. Lucky enough not to have gone down with a broken leg, like the A's Jermaine Dye in last year's playoffs — or, for that matter, like Gehrig in 1939, with the death sentence of amyotrophic sclerosis. Late in his career, even in the first stages of the disease that would be named after him, Gehrig was still a potent offensive player, leading the league in on-base percentage and home runs.

Ripken too had been a star, a clutch player, as asset at shortstop. Then the years turned his hair and his skills gray. His batting average drooped, his power numbers were anemic, he was no longer a shining asset to his team. And still the Orioles managers (one of them was his father) were afraid to sit him for a day or two, if only to give a chance to a younger, hungrier, maybe better player. They let Ripken stay out there for the same reason he insisted on staying out there: because of the streak. That's not teamwork. That's talent that ripens into obsession and sours into selfishness.

There were some peculiarities in the fans' other choices. None of those World Series astonishments I mentioned earlier were among the top moments. Only one of the ten cited a pitcher's performance, with Nolan Ryan's 7th no hitter, at the age of 44, sneaking in at No. 10. (For the fans, apparently, baseball is only 10% pitching.) Oh, and does anyone remember a fellow named Babe Ruth? He was so far ahead of the terrific players of his time that in 1927, when he hit his 60 homers, only one other player had even half as many — Gehrig, with 31.

The rest of the top-ten field was solid (see box). Aaron, Robinson, McGwire, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio: these men earned respect, and strong men misted up to see most of the survivors on the field as their moments were announced. It was also tonic to see the game's medieval power and glamour recognized. Five of the ten moments took place more than a half-century ago. Baseball, more than any other sport, is its past. Commissioner Bud Selig wanted the fans to remember this — and not the more recent stains on the game — when he first announced that the Memorable Moments event would be part of a World Series many feared would not take place.

Well, the strike of 2002 was averted and the evening came off — but with one exuberant embarrassment. No. 6 was Pete Rose's all-time hit record. Suddenly, in person, there was Charlie High-Roller, banned forever from baseball, excluded from Hall of Fame consideration, but out there smiling and getting the biggest, longest cheers of the night.

Say this for Rose: he did it on the field, whatever he did off the field. He got hits, broke up double plays, won games. He did more than what Ripken was so immoderately praised for: showing up.

Give Cal a Certificate of Attendance award. Call him the Strom Thurmond of baseball. But don't make him a hero. Save that designation for Gehrig. Or Jackie Robinson, and the great black stars before him whom institutional racism kept from playing in the bigs. Or the famously reckless, play-through-pain Pete Reiser (who was so mangled after hitting the wall at Ebbets Field in 1947 that he was given the last rites, and played on). Or Pete Gray, who lost an arm in childhood yet still played a year in the majors. Or some schmo with average skills (like Bobby Thompson in 1951) who achieved an incandescent moment that brought his team to greatness ("The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!").

A lesson for all of us working stiffs: Heroes don't hog the limelight. They also serve who sit on the bench.