Amid many feats, one will endure

September 07, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

Cal Ripken will go down in baseball history as the game's greatest iron man.

Not as a shortstop who hit more home runs than any other shortstop in major-league history.

Not as a player who was twice named Most Valuable Player in the American League.

Not as an elegant fielder who held or shared 11 AL or major-league fielding records by the time he celebrated his 35th birthday.

Not as a 13-time All-Star (so far) who compiled more than 300 homers, 1,200 RBIs and 2,300 hits, and batted close to .280.

No, none of Ripken's many and marvelous other accomplishments will define him when he takes his high place in baseball history.

The Streak will define him.

When baseball fans and historians assess him 50 years from now, much as we assess Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig today, Ripken will be seen as the guy who came to work every day. Period.

"I'm confident of the fact that The Streak will be my identity," he said in a recent interview. "I can live with it."

For a long time, he couldn't.

Until not too long ago, he hated the idea that he would be remembered just for playing every day, not for playing well every day. He always said (or didn't say so much as imply) that The Streak wasn't important enough to define him, that it wasn't about winning and losing, that it was just a freakish event that had taken shape as he went about playing hard and trying to help his team win -- which was what his career was really about.

"Up until five or six years ago, I fought the idea that people would remember me just as the guy who played in all those games," he said. "I'm not a Ruth or Gehrig or anyone like that, but I've had a pretty good career."

Oh, not bad.

Maybe if he had put together a career as luminous as that of Gehrig -- a .340 career hitter with 493 home runs -- he would be remembered for what else he has done besides play in every game for nearly 14 seasons. Certainly, Gehrig is remembered for more than just playing every day. But Ripken is not the hitter Gehrig was, so, fairly or not, The Streak consumes that much more of Ripken's legend.

"When you talk about Gehrig, you're talking about one of the three or four best baseball players ever, probably," Ripken said. "I don't claim to compare myself to him that way at all."

Yet anyone who has watched Ripken's career would agree that he shouldn't be defined by The Streak alone, that he is indeed about much, much more than just showing up every day. He is about brilliant fielding, rare power for a shortstop, dependable run production and old-fashioned fundamentals. Watching him run the bases is watching true sporting grace on display.

But the enormousness of his feat of breaking Gehrig's record of playing in 2,130 straight games -- one of the most amazing records in all of sports, not just baseball -- is such that all his other accomplishments and superior characteristics are bound to be dwarfed.

"Cal's streak is huge," Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens said recently. "It's our generation's chance to see a great moment of baseball history. Other people tell us about Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio. Well, this is our chance to see that kind of history being made."

Huge. History. There's no way out for Ripken. The Streak is going on his baseball headstone. Alone.

And he doesn't mind anymore.

"I think I've matured as a person," he said. "[The Streak] is a unique circumstance. It's going to be my identity. And it's not a bad thing to have as your identity."

He fought the idea for so long because The Streak seemed to be newsworthy only when he was slumping, when there was talk that his cool bat needed a day off. Some even viewed him as selfish for putting his individual goal ahead of the team's best interests.

"It just seemed like any time I was talking about The Streak, it was in the context of having to defend my desire to want to play every day," he said. "It seemed to come up only when I was hitting .210 after 200 at-bats and everyone thought a day off was the answer. I fought it because I thought that was very unfair."

Such criticism has slowly dwindled and actually died out altogether in the past few years. What chance did it have when Ripken was hitting .315 with 75 RBIs in 1994 and putting together another solid season this year? What chance did it have against the mounting avalanche of support, acclaim and adoration that piled up at Ripken's feet as he drew closer and closer to Gehrig?

The fact is that some feats are just beyond reproach and cynicism after a while, beyond the clutches of disparagement. The Streak is one of them. Ripken has gone to work every day for 14 years, and that is remarkable, and it will dominate history's

view of him. A man could do a whole lot worse.

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