Cal Ripken never has been comfortable with the suggestion that he saved baseball last year when he broke Lou Gehrig's record for playing in the most consecutive games and provided the game a heavy dose of credibility at a time when it badly needed such.
Ripken said several times baseball has a way of regenerating, and would have without him. Ripken didn't give himself enough credit, but he was correct in this: The sport has a life force of its own.
Every year, baseball provides reminders of why it is so remarkable, stories of perseverance contributing to the immortality of the game, stories of electrifying players. This year is no different:
Brett Butler was so overwhelmed by his doctors' initial diagnosis of cancer that he immediately announced his retirement. But upon reflection, and faced with the prospect of quitting before he was ready, Butler was determined to play baseball once again. Butler started for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, and scored the winning run in a 2-1 victory.
"Think about it," Butler said last week. "I'm coming back after two surgeries and 32 radiation treatments. People said, 'You can't do this, or you can't do that.' And here I am . . . I want people to know that I felt their prayers and I felt their love."
New York Yankees right-hander David Cone was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his arm in May, and after corrective surgery, he insisted he would be able to come back and pitch again this year. Those around baseball marveled at his courage, but few really took him seriously. In his first appearance off the disabled list, Cone threw seven no-hit innings against Oakland last week.
Six years ago the Dodgers gave up on Fernando Valenzuela. His velocity was down, he seemed to be losing command of his screwball, and the following year Valenzuela could hardly get a job in baseball, pitching two games for the California Angels before they returned him to the minors.
He didn't pitch anywhere in the majors in 1992, and had an up-and-down year in '93 for the Orioles. He lasted only eight games in Philadelphia in '94, and the Padres, trying to boost the team's appeal to the residents of nearby Tijuana, Mexico, signed him in spring of 1995.
Valenzuela went 8-3 for the Padres in '95, and has won 12 games this year. "The reason I'm still here," Valenzuela said, "is because I believe in myself."
Kevin Seitzer has played 11 seasons in relative obscurity, being a part of mediocre teams in Kansas City and Milwaukee. He has played hard and done his best to play correctly, advancing runners and mastering the art of the hit-and-run, despite several serious injuries. He is 34 and nearing the end of his career, and an hour before the Aug. 31 deadline for setting postseason rosters, the Brewers traded him to Cleveland. Seitzer is going to the playoffs for the first time.
"I'm ecstatic to be here, to say the least," said Seitzer, who had four hits in his first game for the Indians. "Having a chance to play in the postseason means everything to me. It's all I've wanted my whole career."
Archie Corbin broke into pro ball in 1986 at age 19, and after five years of pitching in the minors, he got his first chance in the majors for the Royals. He threw in two games, 2 1/3 innings -- and promptly disappeared into the minors again, bouncing from Memphis to Harrisburg to Buffalo to Calgary, and he started this year in Mexico.
But Corbin signed with the Orioles in May, and under the careful grooming of manager Davey Johnson, has developed into a solid middle reliever in his 11th year of pro ball. "I'm having a lot of fun," Corbin said last weekend in Seattle. "This is why you get into this."
F. P. Santangelo batted ninth for his college team, the Miami Hurricanes, and wasn't drafted until the 20th round in 1989. Scouts never thought he was big enough or fast enough to make an impact in the majors, and he got stuck in Triple-A for four years before the Montreal Expos called him up in August 1995.
Santangelo is 27, and now Montreal manager Moises Alou is touting him for NL Rookie of the Year; he has played five positions and has set a tone for the Expos with his aggressive play. "He's saved us from disaster," said Alou. "He filled in for Rondell [White] for three months." First baseman David Segui said: "Not taking anything away from Henry Rodriguez, but I think F. P. is our MVP."
What about it, F. P.? "I'm too old for that," Santangelo said.
Since the advent of free agency in 1976, players have moved from city to city like traveling salesmen. Pete Rose should've been a Cincinnati Red his whole career, but he played in Philadelphia and Montreal. Andre Dawson should've spent his whole career in Montreal, but he went to Chicago. Roberto Alomar should've played 20 years for San Diego, but he was traded to Toronto.
Chuck Knoblauch should play his whole career with the Twins -- and apparently he will, having signed a five-year extension to stay in Minnesota, where he belongs.