C'mon, Cal even Lou cut corners

Ken Rosenthal

September 14, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Johnny Oates wants to cut the monster down to size, and Cal Ripken is a fool if he doesn't embrace his manager's plan to give him more rest while preserving his consecutive-games streak.

Nothing is decided, but Oates is exploring ways to reduce Ripken's playing time next season -- perhaps removing him from games earlier, perhaps using him as a designated hitter.

Ripken told Oates he could "live with" a redefined role. What he should do is thank Oates for being sympathetic, then work with )) him to address a problem that has grown out of control.

That doesn't mean ending the streak -- Ripken has earned the right to continue his pursuit of Lou Gehrig, whose streak of 2,130 games is one of baseball's most enduring records.

It simply means acknowledging the truth.

Yes, Ripken wants the record.

Yes, he's getting older.

Yes, he needs more rest.

But even now, in the middle of his worst, most injury-plagued season, Ripken refuses to admit he's chasing Gehrig, for fear of appearing selfish.

After 1,715 games, it's a ridiculous stance. Indeed, the streak is such an oddity, it can be argued that he actually is being unselfish, playing hurt and always trying to help the team.

The issue was dead as recently last season, when Ripken put together a career year. It surfaces now only because of his astounding offensive slump, and a disturbing series of minor injuries.

Oates is a realist.

Something has to be done.

Ripken turns 33 next summer. He's trying to equal a feat achieved in a much simpler era. Oates holds the streak in proper reverence, but he's properly concerned as well.

Gehrig played first base, a position less rigorous than shortstop. He never traveled west of St. Louis, never played on artificial turf. His seasons consisted of 154 games, not 162.

Oates doesn't want to taint Ripken's streak, but from an article entitled "The Gehrig Streak Reviewed" by Raymond J. Gonzalez, he's learning that Ripken is playing even more than Gehrig did.

Gehrig was replaced 68 times during his streak. Once, he led off a game with a single, then left immediately because of a severe case of lumbago. Another time, he bolted after three innings to get married.

At his present rate, Ripken would be replaced only 50 times by the time he passes Gehrig in June of 1995. He not only has started every game, he has played all but 115 of 15,592 innings.

It's too much.

Ripken always has said that the streak is merely a byproduct of his desire to play every game. He never wants to take a day off because he isn't convinced it will do him good.

No one can question his approach in an age when players so often are injured, but the way he's performing this season, who's to say his pride isn't getting in the way of his production?

Ripken is batting .239 with 10 homers and 60 RBI one year after hitting 84 points higher with 24 more homers and 54 more RBI. He has been slowed by injuries to his elbow, his back and now his ankle.

So, Oates envisions playing him only one inning before an off-day, in effect giving him a two-day break. As he put it, "I can't find anywhere where there is an asterisk next to Gehrig's streak."

Ripken said he wouldn't continue his streak if injured -- "it's not so important I'd want to play one inning and then come out." But when healthy, he still questions the value of sitting down.

That stubborn streak is at the heart of his consecutive-games streak, but now his thinking must evolve. He played a record 8,243 straight innings at the start, until his own father, then the manager, said, "Enough."

Oates isn't talking about something insulting or demeaning. He merely wants Ripken playing at the highest possible level, for the sake of his career, and for the sake of the team.

Stoic that he is, Ripken no doubt would comply with his manager's wishes. But more than that, he should accept the aging process, and understand Oates' plan is for his own good.

It's a game of adjustments.

No one will think any less of him.

No one will think any less of the streak.

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