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Not everyone will be fighting for a seat next week as Cal Ripken captures the game’s quotidian best and maudlin worst by playing his 2,131st consecutive game and surpassing Lou Gehrig’s record. From the initial 1985 edition of the Elias Baseball Analyst through its 1993 finale and even on the eve of Ripken’s moment of glory, Elias Sports Bureau executive Steve Hirdt questioned the logic of Ripken playing every game (and from May 30, 1982, through Sept. 13, 1987, every inning of every game). Hirdt believes Ripken and the Orioles have let an individual goal obscure the team objective of winning games. Would Oriole fans rather have Ripken set the record or have the Orioles win the World Series, he wonders.
But now that The Day is here, Hirdt doesn’t want to rain on Ripken’s parade. “The deed is done,” says Hirdt, a vice president with the official keepers of baseball’s statistical flame. “If something was going to be done [to end the streak], it should have been done in the ’80s.
“Regardless of the streak, Ripken is someone I admire, and someone everyone in baseball admires,” Hirdt continues. But he contends Ripken is defying time-tested baseball wisdom, which says an occasional day off helps even the best players. “Why should Cal Ripken be an exception?” he asks. “Ripken should be judged by the same standard as others.”
Hirdt doesn’t buy the argument—advanced by former Oriole skipper Johnny Oates—that Ripken is in the lineup every day because he’s one of the nine best players available. “There hasn’t been a day since 1984 when Kirby Puckett wasn’t one of the Twins’ nine best players that day, but he gets days off,” Hirdt observes. There are other examples, he says, including Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Roberto Alomar, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin and former Chicago Cub keystoner Ryne Sandberg. “[They are] key offensive and defensive players on their teams, everyday players in every sense of the word except the literal sense.” He believes those players
Ripken has said he’s not in the lineup because of the record. “I’m in there because I want to help the team win, and I can’t do that sitting on the bench,” he insists. But Ripken’s disastrous 1992 season (14 homers, 72 RBI, .251 average—all full-season lows) gives some credence to Hirdt’s argument. The Elias exec suggests Ripken would have benefited from a manager like Leo Durocher, who as skipper of the Cubs had the courage to bench Billy Williams to end the Hall of Fame outfielder’s then-National League record 1,117-game playing streak in 1971. “Durocher thought the streak had become an albatross, and he got rid of it,” Hirdt says. The following year, at age 34, Williams won his only NL batting title and the slugging crown.
That’s a history lesson Ripken is unlikely to accept. The doggedness that keeps him going out there every game militates against the notion that he’d help the team by staying in the dugout. Ripken’s stubborn self- confidence is hardly unique in professional sport. It’s the same mind-set that keeps major-league hitters striking out on 90-mph fastballs at the letters; everyone knows those pitches are impossible to hit, but no major leaguer believes anything’s out of his reach.
Hirdt argues that the consecutive-game record is hardly worthy of a player of Ripken’s caliber, since it’s a matter of will, not skill. “I never saw Gehrig’s streak as a great record,” Hirdt says. “When you mention Lou Gehrig today, people know two things about him —the streak, and he died young. It obscures his other accomplishments.” Gehrig was the cleanup hitter on Babe Ruth’s team (let that sink in for a moment), and he collected an American League record 184 RBI in 1931, breaking his own 1927 record of 175. Gehrig and Ruth were the greatest one-two slugging punch in the history of baseball and the power core of the 1927 Yankees, the opening act of a dynasty that lasted four decades. Gehrig collected two American League Most Valuable Player awards, won the triple crown in 1934, and slugged a record 23 grand-slam homers. When he was forced to retire, Gehrig’s 493 homers left him second only to Ruth, and he still ranks third on the career RBI list, behind Hank Aaron and Ruth.
Ripken’s résumé includes a couple of items beyond a tendency to show up. He has two AL MVP awards, a record 12 consecutive All-Star Game starts at shortstop, a record 314 home runs as a shortstop, and more homers and RBIs than any other American Leaguer during his 13-plus seasons as a regular—as well as the most extra-base hits in the majors during that span. And he is no less impressive when he trades the bat for a glove. Despite being the tallest regular shortstop in baseball history at 6 foot 4—a distinct disadvantage at a position where it’s important to field ground balls—Ripken owns the single-season-best fielding percentage, (low) error total, assist mark, consecutive errorless game and chance streaks, all established during his three-error 1990 campaign, plus the single-season AL assist mark set in 1984. Those records mean a lot more than just punching in, though Ripken might argue he couldn’t have set those records if he hadn’t been in the lineup everyday. But a half-century from now they’ll likely remember Ripken the Iron Man, rather than his golden glove and silver bat. In truth, he doesn’t need the artifice of the streak to embody his greatness any more than Gehrig needed his streak to establish himself in the baseball firmament.
Hirdt understands why fans have focused on the streak. “To a lot of people, it’s an exciting event, and if it helps baseball in what’s been a terrible year, that’s good,” he says. The streak is a godsend in an otherwise dismal season for the underachieving O’s, whose postseason hopes are nil despite Ripken’s staying power. With the record set, fans will keep coming to salute Ripken and perhaps to claim they were there the night Cal didn’t play.
Don’t expect Ripken to sit anytime soon. Former third baseman Sachio Kinugasa played 2,215 consecutive games for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League. Playing through the end of 1995 will leave Ripken 62 games short of Kinugasa, putting him on track to set the world record around the second week of June 1996.