It was a confusing scene I had just witnessed on television. There’s Cal Ripken, one of the most revered baseball players ever coming back to first base in Minnesota after a single for his 3,000 hit. He hugged Eddie Murray, his long-time teammate and friend, a fellow 3,000 hit club member, acknowledged the crowd, and then turned toward the visiting dugout to see his teammates rushing out to congratulate him. Nothing strange about that, except the first guy out of the dugout with open arms and a big smile was Albert Belle. Albert Belle? Here you have Cal and the anti-Cal celebrating together and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then Cal shakes Belle’s hand and embraces him! Wait a minute! Isn’t Belle supposed to be a jerk? Isn’t Cal supposed to be one of the best guys to ever play the game? What’s he doing hugging Albert Belle? I can’t stand Albert Belle. Never liked him when his name was Joey, and everything he’s done since then has sent my opinion of him down somewhere between rookie ball and the independent leagues. When the Orioles signed him, they might as well have put pinstripes on their uniforms. How un-Oriole can you get? Who’s next I thought, Dick Allen? Alex Johnson? Who likes Albert Belle anyway? Somehow, Cal Ripken sees something in Albert Belle he likes, and it made me think twice. Just Cal being Cal, choosing to see the best in people, and perhaps bringing out the best in them, which should be good enough for anybody.
“Everybody thinks of me in terms of The Streak,” Ripken has said several times, “but that’s not how I think of myself.” Problem is, Cal has never said how he thinks of himself, and so we’re left with his stats and his actions to put some kind of definition to his career.
Noted writer Thomas Boswell wrote a profile of Ripken last week in The Washington Post, outlining Ripken’s achievements against some of the top players at his position in the game. Boswell covers the Orioles, and has seen Ripken play perhaps more than anyone other than his teammates. Here are some of his points: Of the 7 players with 3,000th hit and 400 home runs, only two played the important defensive positions on the field, “up the middle,” at shortstop, second, catcher or centerfield; Ripken and Willie Mays.
The rap on Cal has always been range, but because of superb positioning, good anticipation, great footwork and a complete knowledge of the competition, his range has actually been phenomenal. The current top three at shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are All-Star players. Ripken’s glove work dwarfs their accomplishments. To back that up, Boswell poses these numbers: Ripken has lead the league in assists seven times, in 1984 he had 583 assists, the American League record. Last season, Jeter Rodriguez and Garciaparra had 391, 382 and 357 assists, respectively. Ripken averaged 497 assists over an 11-year period. That’s an edge of 100 a year over Jeter.
The double play also gauges a shortstop’s ability to play his position, and again, Cal’s numbers loom large over today’s top stars. Ripken averaged 113 double plays for 10 years, Rodriguez had 104 last season, but Garciaparra turned a paltry 72 in ‘99 and Jeter 87. All this at 6’4”, 220, and doing it all day, every day.
Offensively Ripken holds almost all records for a shortstop, and perhaps other shortstops in the future will break those records in this offensively inflated era of baseball. His 3,000 hits and 400 homers stand as a testament to his offensive prowess. Lasts year he hit .340 and slugged .584, pretty good for a guy needing back surgery at 38 year old.
I’ve always liked Cal’s response when asked about his 2,632-concecutive games played. “Because I can, and therefore I should,” he has said in much more eloquent ways. In his autobiography, Ripken explains how a day off here or there wouldn’t have made him any more effective, and how he and his father agreed it would be disrespectful of the game to not play. When you have that talent, desire and ability, you owe it to those gifts to put them on display everyday. Otherwise, you’re cheating.
He single-handedly saved the game from itself in 1994, signing autographs and continuing The Streak. Through his various batting stance adjustments, he showed his willingness to try new things, to be coached. I used to bristle at people’s criticism of his playing everyday, but now I know, it was just Cal being Cal, something we could all learn a little from.