Credit him with a big save History: The timing of Cal Ripken's record-breaking season couldn't have been better for a sport trying to reconnect with its fans.

September 27, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The image of Lou Gehrig, unbowed by an incurable disease, remains fixed in the national consciousness nearly 60 years after he proclaimed himself "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." He was the archetypal all-American hero at a time when a troubled nation needed every ounce of inspiration to get through the Great Depression and prepare for another World War.

The historical implications were not nearly as profound when the Orioles' Cal Ripken chased down the Iron Horse and emerged as one of his generation's greatest sports heroes. No great economic crisis was at hand. No significant world conflict loomed. But the implications for baseball were enormous.

The sport was trying to rebound from the most damaging labor showdown in sports history. The industry's four-year labor dispute culminated with a lengthy strike that wiped out two months of the 1994 season, canceled the World Series for the first time since 1904 and delayed the start of the 1995 schedule.

Not since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 had the game been held in such low repute by the American public.

Baseball needed someone to heal its fractured relationship with the fans, and Ripken was in the perfect position to save the image of the sport. He was just a few months shy of breaking a record that previously was considered unassailable, and he was just the kind of squeaky-clean, all-American guy who could move gracefully past Gehrig and deliver Major League Baseball back into the heart of a nation.

"There isn't a doubt in my mind, if you go back to the events of 1994 and '95, that what Cal Ripken did for baseball can never be understated," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "The way he carried himself, everything that led up to the record and everything after was breathtaking."

If he hadn't volunteered for this good fight, he would have been drafted. The Major League Baseball Players Association -- its public image charred by the angry public response to the strike -- put the word out early on that every player needed to make it his personal responsibility to forge a new link with the fans. Ripken decided without prompting to be the poster boy for that effort, even though he would have to step slightly out of character to make sure that the operation would be a success.

"What he did in 1995 had a catalytic effect," said union director Don Fehr. "It reminded people what this game can provide. Like McGwire's 62nd home run, it was a completely joyful event, something we had not seen in a long time. Something we really needed."

It may have seemed like a carefully orchestrated effort to win back fans and influence people, but Fehr said that no one approached Ripken and asked him to accept any extra responsibility for healing the deep wounds left by the labor dispute.

"Not me, not the Orioles and not Major League Baseball," Fehr said. "So far as I know, nobody came to him and said, 'Hey Cal, let's do this because it's important for baseball.' I don't think anybody said, 'You're the man save baseball.' I think the appreciation of that came later. He was just being himself."

To that point, Ripken resisted attempts to link him to Gehrig and insisted that his consecutive-games streak was just an unintended byproduct of his desire to play every day. To this day, he maintains that he never set out to become baseball's all-time iron man, but he decided -- he insists there was no outside prompting -- to exploit the immense public relations value of The Streak in 1995 for the good of the game.

"It put me in a position to help promote the game," Ripken said. "That was one of the most gratifying aspects of the experience. I enjoyed that role."

Ripken had always signed autographs willingly, but he became an autograph machine, standing outside the dugout for up to two hours after games trying to accommodate the unquenchable demand for his signature. He also allowed himself to be the focus of a huge media blitz that did not subside until after he broke Gehrig's record on Sept. 6, 1995.

"It was all just a byproduct of something special that was happening to me," Ripken said recently. "I think because of how everyone was reacting to me, it was normal to react that way back. It was a real personal thing."

Of course, there was a personal payoff. Ripken went from being a Baltimore hero with a modest national presence to becoming a nationally popular figure who could command millions per year as a corporate pitchman. But the decision to embrace his growing national stature worked to the benefit of the entire sport and clearly hastened the return of baseball's alienated fan base.

The timing of his record-breaking performance could not have been better, and the impact of his emotional victory lap in the fifth inning of the Sept. 6 game against the California Angels touched baseball fans all over America.

The healing had begun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.