Lou lends legend to 'Streak'

September 01, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

As the drumbeats for Streak Week grow louder and louder, let's pause to ask a basic question: Why?

Why is everyone going blotto with excitement about Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record? Why is it being viewed as one of the touchstone sporting moments of our time?

The streak, after all, doesn't celebrate the mastery of a skill such as hitting home runs or throwing fastballs, as other major records do. It isn't about winning or achieving or establishing superiority.

Sure, it's amazing that someone can play in so many games in a row, but there is no excitement on the field, no inherent drama, nothing except a guy going to work every day. And in and of itself, that is, let's face it, not exactly the crux of the matter in baseball.

Why, then, is this feat stirring such passions and generating such acclaim across the country?

Because of the Gehrig myth.

And because of what Ripken symbolizes to so many fans.

Gehrig's impact on the growing applause for Ripken can't be emphasized enough. Ripken says he has never been that interested in learning about Gehrig, which is fine, but please understand: There wouldn't be such a thing as a consecutive games record, basically, if not for Gehrig.

The defining accomplishment of Ripken's career wouldn't be nearly so big and important if not for Gehrig.

When a light-hitting shortstop named Everett Scott held the record (1,307 games) from 1925 to 1933, it was regarded as a minor, largely irrelevant feat, when it was regarded at all. Who cared if a career .249 hitter had played in every game for some nine seasons?

No one even noticed that Gehrig was close to breaking the

record until a New York sportswriter figured it out in spring training in 1933, several months before Gehrig passed Scott.

In the hands of Gehrig, one of the best ballplayers ever, the record became a New York story, a Big Deal. Gehrig, a .340

career hitter, gave the record its substance and style, its glittering uniqueness. Then, when the "Iron Horse" was killed before his 40th birthday by a bizarre disease and his life became high sporting mythology, the record became tragic lore, the stuff of Hollywood.

"Gehrig's story, as sad as it is, is one of the most dramatic and fabled in sports history," said Seymour Siwoff, general manager of the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's official statistician. "This great national fascination with Ripken's pursuit has a lot to do with the fact that he's chasing Gehrig, one of the few athletes whose name puts chills down your spine."

If Ripken were chasing, say, Everett Scott instead of Gehrig, it would still be a big deal, but this big? No way. It is the Gehrig myth -- so ironic, so emotional -- that injects the drama and life into Ripken's pursuit.

(That's not to suggest, as some have, that Ripken should sit down next week and share the record with Gehrig as a tribute. Ripken isn't the ballplayer Gehrig was, but his streak is better, unsullied by the cameo appearances to which Gehrig occasionally resorted. Ripken deserves this record.)

Ripken's pursuit also is a Big Deal across the country not because of what he has accomplished on the field, which isn't that amazing, but because of what he symbolizes to fans.

He is viewed as the antithesis of the stereotypical selfish, arrogant, modern athlete. The anti-Barry Bonds, if you will. A ballplayer from the old school. Rightly or wrongly, he makes fans feel connected to the game again, as if they had stepped back in time.

This has a lot to do with the Streak's popularity. Believe it.

Much of Ripken's reputation is deserved, of course. He has never been in trouble off the field, never sulked publicly, never blamed someone else for his mistakes. He has never tried to renegotiate his contract, accommodated the press most of the time, gone way out of his way to satisfy young fans yearning for autographs, run out ground balls, played fundamentally sound ball, never hot-dogged it.

That is enough to make him into a hero in this increasingly cynical age marked by labor unrest, off-field trauma, shrill hype, watered-down leagues and me-first superstars who would rather make a good commercial than win a championship.

Add to that that Ripken is breaking a distinctly "common man" record to which fans can relate, a record that celebrates the doggedness required in daily life, and his appeal crosses all boundaries.

True, he signed a $30.5 million contract after tough negotiations in 1992, and he certainly participated in the unpopular strike that killed the 1994 World Series -- hardly a "common man" exacta. But fans just exorcise that stuff from their memories. Ripken can do no wrong.

The Streak is huge because it is amazing that a ballplayer can go 14 years without missing a game. But it is because Cal Ripken, of all people, is chasing Lou Gehrig, of all people, that the cheers will resonate so loudly across the sporting landscape next week.

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