Record merits high place in history from rare company

September 07, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Only a select few have any idea what it's like to grasp for something untouchable and find it within reach. Cal Ripken joined that exclusive club last night when he played in his 2,131st consecutive game and broke a record that long was considered unapproachable.

But the record is a curious one, because it is the only one of baseball's legendary standards that is not -- in and of itself -- a statistical achievement born out of the competition on the field. It is a record of endurance that is only a reflection of performance, which leaves its place among baseball's most venerated records open to debate.

"Cal's streak takes a different kind of talent," said all-time hits leader Pete Rose. "Most things have to do with throwing the ball and hitting the ball. It [the streak] has nothing to do with talent, other than earning the right to play every day. If Cal's hitting .210, he's still going to play. I'm not taking anything away from it, but the home run record and the strikeout record and the hit record are totally different than Cal Ripken's streak. It just so happens that he has the stats to go along with it. It's good that he's a great ballplayer."

Rose knows records. He broke one of baseball's unbreakable records when he passed Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list. He also made a run at Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak in 1978, but had to settle for a share of the National League mark (44). He also was one of baseball's most durable players, with two playing streaks of more than 600 games, so he can view the record from more than one angle.

"Of course, I admire guys who break records, but this is not the kind of record that Cal really set out to break," Rose said. "It's just his philosophy. He goes to the ballpark and expects to play. I know how he feels. I was a terrible spectator."

Perhaps it could be considered, from a cynical viewpoint, nothing more than a record for perfect attendance. NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton had to run into angry 260-pound linemen 30 times a game to set the all-time yardage record. Ripken had to run -- uncontested -- onto the field every night to become the most durable player in baseball history. But there was so much more to it that many of those who have reached the statistical mountaintop find the streak as impressive as everyone else.

Ripken has had his share of collisions at second base, without the benefit of a helmet and shoulder pads. He has been hit by pitches 45 times and played with a variety of injuries that might have sidelined a less durable player. All the while, he has maintained a level of offensive and defensive performance that would make him a Hall of Fame candidate even without the streak.

"To me, it's a phenomenal streak," said Nolan Ryan, whose career-record 5,714 strikeouts may never be threatened. "If you had asked me if anybody would break Lou Gehrig's record, I'd have said, 'No.' If you said a shortstop, I'd have said, 'No way.' But a big shortstop? Everything goes against the odds. Then you see him play and he never changes. He projects a good image. The streak is representative of both the way he plays and lives his life."

Ryan went about it in much the same way. Walter Johnson held the all-time strikeout record -- at 3,508 -- when "The Express" broke into the major leagues with the New York Mets in 1966. It was not considered untouchable, but no one imagined that a power pitcher could remain healthy and overpowering enough to reach 5,000. Ryan blew by it and might have reached 6,000 if advancing age and nagging injuries had not finally forced him to retire after the 1993 season.

He got there by taking a start-by-start, work-harder-every-year approach and keeping the focus off individual statistical goals. Sound familiar?

"I never thought about 5,000 strikeouts until I got within range of it," Ryan said. "Then, all of a sudden, people focused on it and I started to think, 'Well, maybe I can do that.' I got a lot of satisfaction that I was able to get as many years as I did and play as many games as I did and throw God knows how many pitches I did. I had to throw more pitches than anybody else in history."

Hank Aaron was just as businesslike in his assault on Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs, but Rose seemed to revel in the carnival atmosphere that surrounded his attempt to replace Cobb as the game's all-time hit leader, as well as the earlier run at DiMaggio's record hitting streak.

Rose loved the limelight. He loved to talk ball with anyone who would listen. He seemed impervious to the pressure and public preoccupation with his separate assaults on two of the game's most venerated records.

"The Cobb thing was a little different," Rose said. "When I really had a lot of press around me was during the 44-game hitting streak. You had to get a hit every night. The Cobb record, I wasn't running out of time. I had all of September to break that record and I was playing good enough to break that record. I earned the right to break that record.

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