Cal Ripken: Not a speck of dirt nor controversy

September 03, 1995|By John Steadman

"Iron Man: The Cal Ripken, Jr. Story," by Harvey Rosenfeld. New York: St. Martin's Press. 276 pages. $22.95 How Cal Ripken Jr. sent the ghost of Lou Gehrig into retreat while en route to supplanting him in the record book - under the heading of "most consecutive games played" - is one of those rare narratives that makes everyone feel so good they want to stand up and cheer. Such is the reaction all over America, even among baseball's uninitiated, many of whom don't care to know the difference between an infield fly and a fly on the wall.

The Ripken achievement wasn't programmed nor was there some magic formula. It's a byproduct of hard work, which makes it sound so deceptively simplistic. Cal's strength and devotion to an objective is based on personal pride and an unrelenting, ravenous desire to do his best. It's a philosophy that allowed him to challenge the Gehrig mark of performing without a miss in 2,130 games.

Above all else, it was his good fortune to be born into a family that features old fashion values. The game plan was basic. Go to work every day (in his case the ball park) and be prepared to give the best that's in you. So elementary. He was able to maximize his innate talent and apply himself, mentally and physically, to what is the most athletic of all positions, a baseball shortstop.

The book, unfortunately, connects and then it doesn't. Oh, yes, it covers his full career, from when mother Vi was taking him to games in Little League while Cal Sr. was in the midst of giving 36 years of his life to playing, managing, coaching and scouting, all for the same team, the Baltimore Orioles - and where his son was to grow up to become Baseball's New Iron Man.

Unfortunately, the book is too chronological and relies heavily on clips from newspapers - to a point of becoming ponderous. It reads, at times, as if it's a recitation rather than a biography. However, it'll be inspiring for young people because it's wholesome, not a speck of dirt nor controversy, almost an updated version of the kind of boyhood tales of yesteryear that highlighted the fictitious Frank Merriwell and Ross Hackney. The major difference is this hero, Cal Ripken, is real and the accounts are true.

You get the impression, early on, that the author may be in need of a diligent editor. In fact, in the second sentence of chapter one the caution light goes on when there's a reference to Havre de Grace, where Ripken was born, as being a Baltimore suburb. Writer Rosenfeld, on the faculty of St. John's and Pace universities, doesn't bring the comforting feeling to the reader that he has any more than a cursory awareness of baseball and is utilizing the sports pages for much of his background.

He resorts to such cliche phrases as "sock a ball into the bleachers," "out to the hill" and "newly found hurler." That's the trite stuff from old dime novels. Cal Ripken Sr., as a third base coach, is referred to as "overseer of third-base lines."

The book relates that when Cal was asked in 1984 if fatigue ever impaired his performance, he provided an answer he repeated frequently over the next 10 years. "Not necessarily," he said. "Sometimes you have your best games when you're tired. You can't tell." His attention to detail, self-motivation and the way he carries himself set him apart. The dugout refrain of he "came to play" is more than a casual compliment. These, indeed, are the words Cal Ripken Jr. has exemplified.

John Steadman has been an Evening Sun sports columnist for nine years. Before that he was sports editor at the News-American for 28 years. He was a minor league player and watched Ripkin Sr. catching for an Orioles farm club in Wilson, N. C.

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