Built to endure, this record isn't to be waved off The Iron Age

September 27, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Immortality? That's fancy talk for a guy from Aberdeen who swept out minor-league clubhouses as a kid and spent rainy days sitting in his garage matching up loose nuts and bolts.

But "Immortal Cal" was the headline in this newspaper on the morning after Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's major-league record for consecutive games, and there wasn't an ounce of hyperbole in it.

For as long as baseball is played and recalled, Ripken is assured of eternal life in record books, archives and memories.

That's true for any member of any sport's hall of fame, but Ripken's record of playing in 2,632 consecutive games assures him of a lasting and prominent place even in that rare company.

He's a common man who pulled off an uncommon achievement, one of the century's greatest sporting feats, 16-plus years in the making.

Disposable history, this isn't.

Unlike almost all other records, including those set by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa amid blaring fanfare this season, Ripken's iron man record is a long shot to be broken or even challenged.

Would you bet a nickel on it? Better to bet the lottery.

Although Ripken has said he believes someone out there could pass him someday, it's hard to imagine anyone even wanting to play in so many games in a row, much less succeeding at doing so.

Streaks of any measurable length are increasingly rare, as baseball relies more every year on left-right matchups and specialization. Six of the 10 all-time longest streaks have come since World War II, but only two were in the past quarter-century.

Ripken is one of just three players since Gehrig to reach 1,100 games in a row. Steve Garvey and Billy Williams were the other two (and the combined total of their streaks doesn't match Ripken's).

Among active players, only Ripken has surpassed 507 games. When his streak finally ended last Sunday night at Camden Yards, Albert Belle's streak of 325 games became the longest in the majors.

Belle, baseball's problem child, laughed at the idea of catching Ripken, saying he was sure he'd get suspended first.

The chances of Belle's or anyone else's streak growing to 2,632 seem ludicrous.

Thus is Ripken's record added to the short list of seemingly unbreakable baseball marks.

The others on that list? Cy Young's 511 career wins. Nolan Ryan's 5,714 career strikeouts. Hack Wilson's 190 RBIs in 1930.

Hank Aaron's 755 career homers? That's breakable. Ken Griffey has a shot at it.

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak? A tough one, no doubt. One hitter, Pete Rose, has come within 12 games of it in 57 years. But 12 games is close enough to suggest vulnerability.

Rogers Hornsby's .424 batting average in 1924, the highest by any hitter in this century?

Well, seeing as no hitter has broken .400 since Ted Williams in 1941, .424 sounds utterly unbreakable.

As utterly unbreakable as playing in 2,632 consecutive games.

Maybe, just maybe, Ripken's is the most unbreakable record of all.

Who is going to make a run at it? Anyone out there? Kids grow up wanting to hit home runs and throw no-hitters, not wanting to play in every game through four presidential elections.

And who is going to stay healthy long enough? What are the

odds of another player lasting 16 years without taking a pitch on the wrist or taking a turn on the base paths that leaves him in a heap?

It's a record you can't just up and beat with a single, hot season, as McGwire and Sosa have done in 1998.

Nor can you beat it with a single, shining moment of brilliance.

This isn't Beamon's long jump, Wilt's 100-point game or Secretariat's Belmont. This isn't someone just doing it.

This is a triumph of perseverance. Remember those?

Ripken would have reached the Hall of Fame without The Streak; he rewrote the definition of a shortstop, adding size and power to the possibilities while setting records in the field. A Rookie of the Year, a two-time MVP, an All-Star every season, he has the credentials.

But the streak is his legacy, his unique down payment on immortality.

If they can't erase his name from the record books, they can't erase his memory.

Roger Maris' memory experienced an overdue renaissance as McGwire and Sosa chased him this season, but what happens now? It's not his record anymore. History moves on.

Ripken won't suffer the same fate. His record is unlike any other, one that crosses the boundaries of the field and resonates in the stands, where people also have to go to work every day.

It's his record to keep, almost without a doubt.

His stake to a lasting place in the chronicle of baseball history.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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