IRON BIRD

  • THE STREAK IS SUCH AN INADEQUATE DESCRIPTION FOR something that began 2,127 games, 29 different double-play partners and 13 1/4 years ago. If you pitch 59 consecutive shutout innings or hit in 56 straight games, you are on a streak. But if you play so long that 3,695 other major leaguers have gone on the disabled list since the last time you spent an entire game on the bench, so continuously that more than 50 million fans have seen nobody but you start the game at your position, you are not on a streak. You are on a river, a long, meandering river like, say, the Susquehanna, which begins its 444-mile journey in Cooperstown, New York, the purported cradle of baseball. From there the Sus quehanna finds its way to Oneonta, the home of 1950 National League mvp Jim Kon stanty; dips down into Pennsylvania before recrossing the border near Bing hamton, where Wee Willie Keeler and Whitey Ford cut their professional teeth; winds back down south toward Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Joe McCarthy managed his first team; meets up with the West Branch, which flows past Williams port, the birthplace of Little League Baseball, and Lewisburg, home of Chris ty Mathewson's alma mater, Bucknell University; bisects Harrisburg, where Hall of Fame pitcher Vic Willis got his start; rushes past York, which once knew Brooks Robinson as a second baseman; crosses the border into Maryland and--at long last--enters the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, which happens to be the birthplace of Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr.

    Unless something unforeseen or unthinkable happens, Cal Ripken, the 35-year-old shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, will play in his 2,131st straight game on Sept. 6, against the California Angels in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. That will break the record set by Lou Gehrig, the first baseman for the New York Yankees from 1925 until 1939. The "Streak," as it has come to be called, officially began on May 30, 1982, when Orioles manager Earl Weaver started Ripken at third base, which was then his position, against the Toronto Blue Jays. The previous day, Weaver had rested the 21-year-old rookie in the second game of a doubleheader.

    Unofficially, the Streak probably began in the late '60s in the basement of the Ripken household, by then in Aberdeen, Maryland. Says Vi Ripken, the matriarch of the Ripken clan (daughter Ellen, sons Cal Jr., Fred and Billy): "I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard 'Just one more game, Mom.' The kids would be playing Ping-Pong in the basement, and it was always a struggle to get them to come upstairs for dinner, and even more of a struggle to get them to go to bed. Nobody liked to end the night on a loss, especially Junior. 'Just one more game, Mom.'"

    Just one more game. Therein lies the true beauty of the Streak. Ripken never set out to eclipse the "Iron Horse," who he modestly and somewhat mistakenly believes was a much better ballplayer than himself. "I'm not even in Gehrig's league," says Ripken. Offensively speaking, Ripken may be right, although he has had two mvp, Gehrigian seasons (1983 and 1991). But defensively Ripken plays a much tougher position than Gehrig did, and he does a much better job of it at that. As durable as Lou was, he played every inning of every game for only one season; Ripken played every inning of 904 straight games from 1982 to '87-only his father, then the manager of the Orioles, could sit him down. While Gehrig occasionally resorted to artifice to extend his streak, Ripken has never done anything untoward to keep his alive, or played anything less than hard. Gehrig was literally afraid of leaving the lineup; Ripken is in it for the fun. "There's a joy to Cal's game that never ceases to amaze me," says Mike Flanagan, the Orioles' pitching coach who has played for Cal Sr. and played with Cal Jr. "People who think he's out for glory just don't get it." Indeed, fans who think that Ripken will sit down shortly after No. 2,131 are mistaken. Barring injury or sudden ineptitude, Ripken will play in Nos. 2,132, 2,133, 2,134...The Iron Bird.

    Occasionally given to slumps, Ripken is approaching the Streak in something of a hitting malaise that has dropped his average into the .260s. But he still plays his position with amazing grace; at 6 ft. 4 in. he is not only the tallest shortstop in history but also one of the smoothest. And rather than go into a shell to protect his privacy this season, he has been making a concerted effort to meet the needs of the media and the wants of the fans. At the All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas, he worked his way from dugout to dugout in 100 [degree] F heat, signing every thing put in his way. In Baltimore this summer, he has been conducting after-the-game autograph sessions to make up for lost time and repair the wounds of the baseball strike.

    There are times in which Ripken seems not just a throwback but the last true sports hero. He carries the requisite super star salary--$6 million annually for two more years--but almost none of the other baggage that has come to be associated with the modern-day professional athlete. He has never sulked, malingered, strutted, whined, wheedled or referred to himself in the third person. He has turned down several opportunities to become a free agent, preferring to remain an Oriole and a Baltimorean. He has endorsements, to be sure, but his most famous one is for milk.

    America never stops moaning about the absence of heroes--"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"--yet when it has someone who daily displays grit, generosity, spirit and skill, not to mention incredibly blue eyes, what does it do? It looks this generation's gift horse in the mouth. Robert Lipsyte, the respected New York Times columnist, recently suggested that Ripken take a seat rather than sully Gehrig's memory. And the hate mail that Ripken has received this summer has been of such volume and venom that Major League Baseball has had to beef up the security around him.

    Opponents and teammates alike hold Ripken in the same awe in which he holds Gehrig. Says the Toronto Blue Jays' veteran designated hitter Paul Molitor: "As someone who has spent a few years of my life on the disabled list, I can tell you that what Cal has done and is still doing is beyond my comprehension. He plays the second toughest position on the field every day, often on artificial turf, sometimes in day games after night games, sometimes after flying all night. He's still a dangerous hitter, still the most reliable shortstop out there, and he is the essence of class on and off the field. He's enough to make you sick."

    WITH ANY GREAT RIVER, THERE IS A LONGING to find the source. In Ripken's case, it is an immaculately groomed, ranch-style home in Aberdeen, where he and his siblings grew up and where his folks, Vi and Cal Sr., still spend their days in semi-retirement: golf, bumper pool, tomato plants. Senior's tomatoes are such things of beauty that he could probably make a fortune selling them at a road stand, maybe even under a sign that reads SON-TRIED TOMATOES.

    Cal met Vi after watching her play softball in high school, and the game has gripped their family ever since. When Cal Jr. was born, Cal Sr. was catching for Class B Fox Cities (Wisconsin) under manager Earl Weaver. (Weaver once claimed he knew even when Junior was a fetus that he was going to be a major leaguer.) An injury ended Senior's playing career soon afterward, so he embarked on a minor league managerial odyssey that took him to Leesburg, Florida; Appleton, Wisconsin; Kennewick-Richland-Pasco, Washington; Aberdeen, South Dakota; Elmira, New York; and Dallas. While Dad was away, Mom was home in Maryland raising the four kids, who were born just six years apart.

    By the time Cal Sr. was given the Orioles' Double-A team in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1972, the kids were old enough to help out--Ellie as the scoreboard keeper, Junior as the bat boy, Fred as a clubhouse attendant and Billy as the ball boy. "I think that's where I first picked up my work ethic," says Cal Jr. "My dad did everything. He was not only the manager but also the pitching coach, the batting coach, the batting-practice pitcher, the ground keeper. And when he wasn't on the field, he was talking baseball." Cal Sr., whose face might have entranced Grant Wood, cracks a rare smile when he thinks back to his days in Asheville. "At the start of batting practice, I would plant the boys at the base of the outfield fence to shag flies and tell them, 'Don't move.' But as practice went on, I would see them inch in toward the infield, until by the end Cal was taking ground balls hit by my third baseman, Doug DeCinces, while Billy was just a few paces behind him." One night, when DeCinces and the 12-year-old Cal were the last ones on the field, a gunshot rang out from behind the outfield fence, and a bullet hit the ground near Cal. DeCinces picked him up and carried him to the safety of the dugout.

    Cal Sr. finally made the majors in 1976 as one of Weaver's coaches. And in 1978 the Orioles made the star shortstop and pitcher for Aberdeen High School, Cal Jr., their fourth pick in the draft. His talent was so obvious that nepotism was never an issue. In 1982 the Orioles traded third-baseman DeCinces to the California Angels to make room for the kid he once carried to safety. Ripken missed only two games in his Rookie of the Year season, becoming the Orioles' shortstop on a permanent basis on July 1. In '83 Ripken was named the American League MVP, helping lead the Orioles to victory in the World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies.

    After '83, though, the Orioles went through a rough period. Cal Sr. was given the club to manage in '87, and in July of that season, his youngest son Billy became the Orioles' regular second baseman, making Cal Sr. the first major league manager to have two sons on his team at the same time. But not even that tender story line could save the O's, or Cal Sr.'s job. When the team lost the first six games of the '88 season, he was fired, although Billy remained Cal Jr.'s double-play partner until 1992.

    AS THE ORIOLES CONTINUED TO struggle, and Ripken's consecutive-game string grew longer and longer, the talk about resting him grew louder and louder. "I never understood the reasoning behind it," he says. "O.K., my statistics weren't as good as they were in '83, but sitting down would only be running away from the problem. You don't get out of a slump by not playing. And if I wasn't hitting, I could help the team in other ways." Indeed, in 1990 Ripken set a major league record for fewest errors by a shortstop in a season, an amazingly low three. Then in 1991 he won his second mvp award with a .323 average, 34 homers and 114 rbis. "That season proved a lot to me and other people," says Ripken. "I admit I had my doubts, wondering maybe if I was past my prime. But after that I felt, 'So what if I get older? I'll just work a little harder.'"

    The Streak has had two close calls. The first came during game No. 444 in April 1985, when Ripken sprained his ankle on a pick-off play in the third inning. Although he continued playing, his ankle was badly swollen and discolored after the game. Fortunately, the Orioles had scheduled an exhibition game against the Naval Academy the next day. The second near-miss came as a result of a bench-clearing melee with the Seattle Mariners during game No. 1,790 in June of '93. Ripken twisted his knee, and when he woke up the next morning, he couldn't put his weight on it. He told his wife Kelly he might not be able to play that night. According to Kelly, "Just before he left for the ball park, I said, 'Maybe you could just play one inning and then come out.' He snapped, 'No! Either I play the whole game or I don't play at all.' I told him, 'Just checking, dear.'"

    Ripken did play the full nine innings that night. In fact, he has played in 99.2% of every Orioles game since the Streak began. The percentage would be even higher had Ripken not been ejected from two games in the first inning. After umpire Drew Coble threw him out on Aug. 7, 1989, for arguing, Coble said, "I felt like I was throwing God out of church."

    If Ripken does have a flaw, it is his temper. He doesn't tolerate incompetence on the part of umpires or teammates. "I'm also stubborn," he says. "I think that's one trait I share with Gehrig." But by and large he conducts himself with consideration and intelligence and good humor. His parents have something to do with that, but so does the Orioles' organization, which has a unique tradition of encouraging players to become active in the community. Ripken is particularly involved in an adult-literacy program in Baltimore.

    It's not easy being Ripken, especially these days. Before a recent 7:30 p.m. game with the Cleveland Indians, he arrived at the ball park at 12:30 for a two-hour discussion with Oriole officials on the plans for "Streak Week." At 2:45 he had a photo shoot with the Rawlings Sporting Goods company. At 3 he did a CNN interview; at 3:30 two local TV interviews; at 4:05 an ESPN interview. After that he immersed himself in his pregame routine, stretching and laughing with Brady Anderson , taking his cuts in batting practice, prancing around his shortstop territory in infield practice--how can any man find so much enjoyment in a ground ball, much less his 100,000,000th ground ball? Then he went off to work on his swing on the indoor batting tee for 15 minutes, and then he went over scouting reports on the Indians. Once the game started, he went hitless and drew a walk, but played his position flawlessly. (A shortstop has some special responsibility on every play that's not a strikeout.) And when the 3-hr. 16-min. 8-5 defeat was over, Ripken didn't just dress and go home. He went back out onto the field for one of his postgame autograph sessions, signing for and kibitzing with 2,000 fans. "Cal Ripken personifies everything that is right with baseball," said Bob Seal, 33, an engineer for the Norfolk Southern Railroad who came up to the game from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

    A Ripken autograph session is illuminating because he doesn't just sign, sign, sign in the joyless way that many other ballplayers do. He engages people in conversation, talking to them as one baseball fan would to another. ("Man, did you see the stuff Mussina had tonight?" says Ripken, the fan.) If he sees a child with a rival's hat on, he'll kid him or her and maybe even exchange the cap for one of his own.

    Actually, Ripken's easy way with the fans had something to do with the way he met his wife. Kelly Geer's mother chatted him up at a restaurant signing one night in 1983, telling him about her eligible daughter, and Cal signed the ball to Kelly, "If you look like your mother, I'm sorry I missed you. Cal Ripken." As Kelly recalls, "My reaction was, 'Who's Cal Ripken?' But a couple of months later, I was in a restaurant where he was signing, and when I thanked him for being so nice to my mom, he said, 'You must be Kelly. You're 6 ft. tall, blond, you have green eyes, you went to the University of Maryland, and you work for the airlines.' The next day he called." Kelly and Cal were married four years later. They now have two children: Rachel, who was born in November 1989, and Ryan, who was born in July 1993 on--somebody up there likes Cal--an off day.

    Both the Orioles and Ripken feared that this season might be overwhelming for him, but it has become quite the opposite. "This is the most relaxed I've seen Cal in years," says Kelly. "He's at peace with himself. He realizes that even though the Streak will always be a part of his identity, it's a positive thing."

    WHEN RIPKEN IS ASKED HOW HE'S CHANGED during the Streak, he responds, "Less and grayer hair." But then he gives a more thoughtful answer: "I'm much better with people, kids particularly. When I was young and fans would give me their babies to hold for a picture, the babies always ended up crying. But now that I have kids of my own, I find it easier not only to hold them, but to talk to them. And they ask--no offense--the best questions. Like 'How come you're not crying? How come you're not mad you lost the game?' And I tell them, 'I am mad, but I've learned not to show it.' Or they'll ask, 'What's it like to hit a home run to win the game? Is it the best feeling in the world?' And I tell them, 'It is the best feeling.' The kids reduce the game to its most basic level, and they remind me why it is I love baseball so much."

    Travel upriver from Havre de Grace all the way to Cooperstown, and right there on Main Street is a statue of a boy called The Sandlot Kid. He's barefoot, and he's wearing a straw hat. But he holds his bat over his shoulder a little like Cal Ripken. Just one more game.