Ripken's repeated collisions with adversity show fine line he has tread for 1,887 games

STREAK OF FATE

September 24, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

It is a quiet countdown.

Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken prefers to act as if it doesn't exist, but his consecutive-games streak has reached the point where Lou Gehrig's record -- once seemingly unassailable -- no longer is a distant dream. The Iron Horse is beginning to hear footsteps.

If all goes well, Ripken soon will complete an 11th consecutive season in which he has appeared in every Orioles game. The streak stands at 1,887 with the coming 10-game homestand remaining on the club's regular-season schedule. If all goes well, he will eclipse Gehrig's 2,130-game streak in June 1995. If all goes well.

That's why Ripken doesn't like to talk about it. Call him superstitious, but there is a lot more to playing those 1,887

straight games and the 244 to come than merely showing up on the field. This past nine-game road trip is proof of that.

Just ask former Orioles catcher Bob Melvin, who required three stitches to close a gash above his eye after Ripken bowled him over in Boston. Ask anyone who watched Ripken dodge several bullets during a trip that left his team's division title hopes badly bruised.

In the first three games, he was hit by a pitch, had the crash with Melvin and almost dislocated his left shoulder making a spectacular catch. In Cleveland on Monday, his head was nearly taken off by a sharp one-hopper that hit an uneven spot on the Cleveland Stadium infield. The string of close calls only illustrates how amazing the streak is, because Ripken has been tempting fate that way for nearly 12 years.

"I try not to think about that," said Ripken, 33. "If you play hard and concentrate all the time, that insulates you and protects you. When you're focused, you know that there's a chance somebody is going to run into you at second base and you're prepared for that. You don't take for granted that you are going to stand up at any base, so you never have to slide at the last minute. When you're not paying attention, that's when you can be caught off guard."

But even Ripken will concede that there is more to it than that. Through the nearly 1,900 games and the thousands of plays he has been involved in, it would have taken only one intervening variable -- one unpredictable incident -- to bring the streak to an end.

"I suppose there is a luck component in everything," he said. "I have always said that I've been lucky to avoid serious injury this long."

There is the perception in some circles that he has gone out of his way to avoid injuries, but that notion is not shared by anyone who watched him level Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach at home plate earlier this year.

"He looked like he wanted to hit him," recalled Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller. "He knocked him out of the game."

The June 9 crash came after pitcher Bob Welch had hit Ripken on the hand with a pitch, apparently in retaliation for a high fastball to Steinbach. Ripken came around on a hit by Mike Devereaux and knocked Steinbach almost senseless.

If there ever was a time for Ripken to play it conservatively, that would have been it. Three days earlier, he had twisted his knee during a brawl with Seattle and came very close to ending the streak June 10.

Drawing criticism

Ripken always has maintained that the streak is only a byproduct of his desire to play every day, but he has been criticized on numerous occasions for supposedly putting the streak ahead of the best interests of the team. San Francisco Giants coach Bobby Bonds ripped him for that earlier this season.

"That's idiotic," Bonds said in May, discussing the topic after a game in which his son, Barry, sat out. "If I were his manager, he'd be out of there. He's hurting the team and showing that personal goals are more important. He wants to break Lou Gehrig's record even if it'll cost Baltimore the pennant."

It is a difficult case to prove.

"The thing that I'm amazed about are the things that get attributed to Cal about the streak, like the thing with Bobby Bonds," Miller said. "Every time there has been a brawl or near-brawl, Cal has been one of the first guys out there. If the streak is so important to him, what's he doing out there?"

The home-plate run-ins fall into the same category. No one would fault Ripken for sliding home in a hopeless situation, but Steinbach and Melvin can attest that he did anything but play it safe.

Why did the guys wearing the pads get injured in both cases, while Ripken got up and went back to his position? He couldn't tell you. Why crash the plate with so much at stake? That is another matter.

"With Steinbach, that was my only recourse," Ripken said. "With Melvin, I slid late and my momentum carried me up into him. You do what you can do. I don't think there is a textbook way to do it. Randy Milligan ran into Ron Hassey in Oakland [in 1991], and he was out for two months. There are all kinds of things that can happen."

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