Ripken doesn't realize what his superb work ethic really means

September 05, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Try as they might on the news-magazine show "Sixty Minutes" the other night, they couldn't get Paul Newman to admit that talent had a whole lot to do with his hugely successful film career spanning four decades. "Luck," he said, "and maybe some good looks."

Pal Robert Redford said, "Paul really doesn't know how good he is."

In some ways, Cal Ripken doesn't really know how good he is either. Oh, he knows he can play baseball a lot better than most, but for all that other stuff, shucks, t'weren't nothing.

Until recently he hadn't an inkling of how special he has been for years, showing up, giving it his best, carrying himself impeccably and always putting the team first.

As the old Yankee Tommy Henrich, whose career took in the last two seasons of Lou Gehrig's reign through the end of the Joe DiMaggio era, said, "This is a fantastic athletic feat. Everybody is supposed to go all-out every day. If you were to tell me the guy who would break Gehrig's record would be a shortstop, I would've told you you were out of your mind. The law of averages took a big beating here."

Going all-out every day? What a laudable, if extremely old-fashioned, concept. Cal has been doing it forever and he appears uncomfortable at being dubbed a hero for what comes naturally -- blue eyes and gray hair, like Newman.

* Words beginning with C-A-L that haven't been used on these pages yet: Calcium (as in milk), caldron (where No. 8 has resided for months now), Calvert (as in Lord Baltimore), calamitous (what this season would qualify as had it not been for "The Streak"), calcification (what may happen before he misses a game), calumny (here, never).

* It's too late now, but in keeping with the old-fashioned values Ripken has always brought to baseball, it's strange a nickname was never hung on him. About 80 percent of old ballplayers had nicknames: Iron Horse, the Mechanical Man, Bambino, Big and Little Poison, Dizzy and Daffy, Rube, Pepper (The Wild Hoss of the Osage), The Only Nolan, Yankee Clipper, Shotgun, Cuckoo, the Little Professor, the Arkansas Humming Bird, etc.

* One of the great newspaper leads concerning Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak was authored by New York columnist Vic Ziegel: "Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive ballgames for the Yankees. Why?"

As we moved into an era of guys not being able to go for much more than a month, Ziegel sought out the answers to where endurance, desire, consistency and sustained ability, whatever had gone. Alas, except as in the cases of Billy Williams, Steve Garvey, a few more and Cal, there were none to be found.

* A couple of weeks before Ripken took over at shortstop in late May, 1982, trade rumors were flying concerning Jim Palmer for a player to fill "the team's greatest need," according to then-general manager Hank Peters, a guy to play between second base and third base. U. L. Washington of the Royals and Bucky Dent of the Yankees were mentioned prominently. The O's record was 15-20 at the time.

It was after Ripken has played third base for a flock of games that the dandy little manager, Earl Weaver, doped out that the answer to the club's "greatest need" was standing about, what, 45 feet away at the hot corner. A fine move, Spunky. It just could get you to Cooperstown someday.

* On one of the three famed monuments in Yankee Stadium, the one dedicated to Gehrig, the inscription includes, "His amazing streak of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time." Well, to some, 56 years is all time; besides, changing the wording slightly won't be any big deal.

* Here are the names of some Hall of Famers who did not play in 2,131 games in their careers, much less play them consecutively: Joe DiMaggio (1,736), Joe Cronin (2,124), Yogi Berra (2,120), George Kell (1,622), Ralph Kiner (1,472), Hack Wilson (1,348). And some of the people Ripken figures to "catch" in the near future: Duke Snider (2,143), Johnny Bench (2,158), Rogers Hornsby (2,259), Frankie Frisch (2,311) and Jimmy Foxx (2,317).

* Al Michaels, one of the great baseball broadcasters ever who, unfortunately, doesn't get much chance to practice these days, worries about "The Streak" ending up overshadowing Ripken's career accomplishments on the field: Two MVP awards, rookie of the year, perennial All-Star shortstop, several banner years at the plate and in the field and his total dedication to the game.

* They tell the story of Gehrig's going on a radio broadcast sponsored by a cereal called "Huskies" and inadvertently extolling the virtues of his morning-favorite, Wheaties. Never heard of Huskies? Small wonder, the company went out of business after a short run.

* Lou was christened Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig, which probably would have led to a piano endorsement if he had stuck with it.

* Gehrig's explanation after taking himself out of the Yankees' lineup after going 4-for-28, all singles, in the first eight games of the 1939 seasons was, "I'm not helping the ballclub." We might be hearing something similar around here in a half-dozen years or so.

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