In 1995, my five-year-old self was still beginning to grasp the meaning of professional sports. Living in a city with a minor league team, I knew that there were certain adults who were paid to play baseball, a game that I enjoyed to play myself. I collected baseball cards, but most of the names meant little, and the numbers on the back meant even less. The World Series came and went every fall without my knowledge.
On September 6, 1995, things began to change for little Josh. That was the night that my soon-to-be idol Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game. I already had a loose understanding of who Ripken was. My dad had been successful in his quest to land the Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop’s signature the year prior, and had been extolling the virtues of Ripken to me from the moment I began showing the slightest interest in the game of baseball. The gravity and history of Ripken’s record was enough to hold a small child’s short attention span. Even I, a kindergartner, could understand just how special it was to see Cal take his victory lap and address a standing room only crowd to massive applause. That the President saw fit to attend the historic game only seemed more impressive (Bill Clinton would seem slightly less impressive to me by the time 1998 rolled around).
Now, 20 years later, Ripken’s streak is still special to me. This streak, not the steroid-induced home run barrage of the late 90’s is what began baseball’s redemptive process following the player strike. The players were still viewed mostly as greedy and money-hungry (read Jon Pessah’s The Game if you would like to read a fair and balanced narrative on the strike that does not paint just the players in a bad light). Ripken, though, was a normal guy who went to work and did his job day in and day out. For 16 straight years, he went about his business in a classy, humble way, with no me-first chest pounding.
Still, Ripken’s streak is not left alone just to be celebrated. As the 2oth anniversary comes and goes, media types (the same types who pound Bryce Harper for coming out of a game with a minor injury and then daring to return to the field a day later) continue to drum up the needless question as to whether it was selfish for Ripken to keep playing for 16 years without a break. Ripken’s teams, they argue, would have been better off with him sitting on the bench a few times a season just to stay fresh (if you’d like to take a look at the mid-90’s Orioles’ backup infielders, it goes without saying that having Ripken in the lineup every day was the best option). Perhaps that would have allowed Ripken to collect an extra handful of hits per season or reach an additional groundball in the hole, but that’s hardly worth taking a day off. Eight Silver Sluggers, two MVPs, and 19 All-Star appearances speak for themselves. Ripken is still the all-time home run leader at shortstop, and will likely remain so for a long, long time.
Though Ripken was protective of his streak and probably did play through more than one injury that would have knocked most out of the lineup, he never placed it above the team. He had to be forced out of the dugout to take that famous victory lap, and met most praise regarding his streak with a humble response. If he were as selfish as some would make him seem, Ripken would have bolted from Baltimore’s middling ballclub at the first chance. When it was time to move from shortstop to third base, Ripken did that with grace too. For the Iron Man, though, it was always about showing up to the ballpark and playing baseball for the only team he ever wanted to play for. There was no selfish personal agenda, though some still want to create one or at least question its existence.
The streak is an achievement and record that will never be broken. Only Manny Machado will play all 162 games this year, and even he may take a day off before the year ends as the late season fade continues in Baltimore. For once in this modern 24-hour news cycle, let’s just appreciate an achievement for what it is — a moment to be celebrated for the rest of time, no need to dig deeper. Fifty or sixty years from now, Cal Ripken will remain baseball’s Iron Man. Why ruin that narrative with unnecessary analysis?