Streak bigger than numbers Defense: In the end, only Cal himself can answer if The Streak was worth the agony, the pain and the criticism.

September 21, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was grueling.

Everybody knows that.

Cal Ripken played with sprained ankles and twisted knees and bruised ribs. He played with head colds and flu symptoms. He played on even after Lou Gehrig handed over his record and Davey Johnson took away his primary position. He played on and on and on, until there was only one question left.

Was it all worth it?

There is no precise date, but The Streak took on a life of its own sometime in the early 1990s, probably when Ripken passed Boston Red Sox great Everett Scott to move into second place on baseball's all-time iron man list.

Ripken, whose steady play and productive bat had made his playing time a non-issue in the '80s, has been forced to defend his desire to play every day ever since. It hasn't always been easy.

Over and over he answered his critics. The first real clamor over his playing time bubbled up after the Orioles' "Why not?" season of 1989, when his performance at the plate tailed off in September. The issue resurfaced the following year, for the same reason, but Ripken shattered the myth of his mounting fatigue with a career year and his second MVP trophy in 1991.

Every ensuing slump put The Streak under a microscope, but Ripken finally eclipsed New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig in 1995 and established himself as a living historical monument.

The record chase clearly played an important role in baseball's ,, recovery from the long-running labor dispute that forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series -- and enhanced its own historical significance along the way.

Was it worth it? Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Players Association chief Don Fehr would have to answer strongly in the affirmative. So would the fans, who threw off their strike-induced cynicism to enjoy the feel-good festival that took place Sept. 5 and 6, 1995.

So would Ripken, of course, but the price was high. He went from hometown hero to national icon during the 1995 season and surrendered the small-market insulation that made Baltimore such a comfortable place to play. His private life suddenly became the object of intense scrutiny and speculation. His motives -- for continuing the streak long after he broke Gehrig's record -- came under question.

Ripken always explained it the same way. The streak was a by-product of his desire to play every inning of every game. It would last as long as his manager felt that his presence in the lineup gave the Orioles the best chance to win on any given night.

It wasn't that simple, of course. There came a point when the streak became bigger than the manager and the strategic nuance of making out the lineup card. Ripken may have resisted the notion, but he knew -- everybody knew -- that the streak would only end on the day that Ripken suffered a serious injury or finally decided that enough was enough.

That finally happened last night. Ripken told manager Ray Miller shortly before the game that he had decided to sit down. The time was right. He was playing well and hitting the ball with consistency. He was sitting down on his own terms, and perhaps pre-empting an attempt by the club to convince him to end the streak early next season.

Was it worth it?

"I think that's the wrong way to look at it," said Hall of Famer and former Orioles manager Frank Robinson, who wrote Ripken's name on the lineup card for parts of four seasons from 1988-91. "It's something that happened. Cal didn't set out in 1982 to break Lou Gehrig's record. It happened. Let's give him credit for having the moxie to go out there every day."

That sentiment was widespread, but it wasn't always unanimous. Ripken chaffed at the notion that the streak was a personal obsession and occasionally was sensitive to criticism of his dogged desire to be in the lineup day.

His MVP performance in 1991 ended any serious talk of ending the streak until well after he broke Gehrig's record and rescued a sport that was drowning in self-induced fan animosity.

Still, it eventually got to the point where the toughest thing about the streak was defending it. Ripken again found the streak the subject of unwelcome speculation this year, as his power and run-production numbers declined, but he ended the streak at a time when he was swinging the bat as well as he has all season.

Was it worth it? It was if Ripken wanted to go down in history as one of the greatest players in the history of the game. His steady performance at shortstop and his outstanding offensive performance relative to his position probably would have made him a Hall of Famer regardless of the streak, but surpassing Gehrig assured that he would be remembered among the greatest of the great.

"He didn't need the streak to get into the Hall of Fame," said Orioles pitching great Jim Palmer. "He was the prototype for the shortstop of the '90s. He was the guy that came before the Derek Jeters and the Alex Rodriguezes. He would have gotten there [Cooperstown] on merit. The streak became bigger than what he has done the last 17 years for the team."

Robinson insists that -- during his tenure as manager -- he never viewed the streak as a managerial handicap. Just the opposite.

"Cal brings something to the game that a lot of other players don't," Robinson said. "He has a knowledge of the game and he makes all the plays. You never wondered when the ball was hit to him if he was going to make the play. You were surprised when he didn't.

"It was a comfort for me to be able to write his name into the lineup without thinking about it."

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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