Cal brings a less-heralded streak to an end

September 30, 2001|By John Fensterwald

SAN JOSE, Calif. - In honor of Cal Ripken Jr., I broke my streak. I called in sick and took my 10-year-old daughter to see Cal's last game at the Coliseum.

As any schoolgirl knows, Mr. Ripken, the great Baltimore Orioles shortstop and third baseman, broke Lou Gehrig's record by playing in 2,131 straight games. He then played in 501 more before taking himself out of the lineup on Sept. 20, 1998. His record: 2,632 games over 16 years.

My streak? Nearly a quarter-century (24 years, 5 months, 21 days, to be exact) without calling in sick or taking an unscheduled day off work.

Cal was just a lanky high school pitcher from Aberdeen, Md., with only dreams of making Cooperstown, when I reported for my first day as editor of the weekly Monadnock Ledger in Peterborough, N.H., and started my streak in March 1977.

Not wanting to look like a goody-goody among my colleagues, I've kept the streak pretty much to myself, except for my wife. And she's grown weary of my droning on about the subject over the years.

I grew up in Baltimore and learned baseball watching the famed Orioles teams of the '60s and '70s. Like other lifelong, long-suffering O's fans, with little to cheer about since the World Series in '83, I've been captivated by Cal.

There have been times over the years when I've felt lousy and debated going back to bed. Then I've thought about Cal, put down the phone, tied my shoes and gone to work.

It's not that he inspired me per se. I figured I was competing with him to see who'd drop out first. He did.

Now, I admit that working for a newspaper is not like laying sheet rock, soldering circuits or playing shortstop with guys sliding into you cleats-first. That's real work. You can write editorials, which I've done for a decade, while nursing a cold in bed, or sitting at home on a sofa in your PJ's (which is what I did when I wrote this). There's not much heavy lifting in my job.

But, like Cal, I too have worked though pain: the flu on my birthday in '78, a separated shoulder in '81 that turned me into a one-hand typist on codeine, a stomach bug in '86, and a nasty cold in '98, three weeks after I started at the San Jose Mercury News .

So why did I drag myself to work time after time? Stupidity, said my wife, when I looked three shades of green.

Yes, but there was also dread. As editor of a weekly paper, writing, reporting, even delivering the paper, I feared there'd be no paper if I were out.

And there was guilt, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, the urge not to add to co-workers' burdens.

There was vanity - the feeling that no one could do my job better - and, its evil twin, insecurity - the suspicion that someone, in fact, could and would.

There was the luck of dodging harm's way and superstition: Let down your guard even once, and you'll become a doormat for microbes.

And, last but not least, there was the pleasure of doing what you like. Choose a job you enjoy, I told my daughter on the way to Oakland, and you'll want to go to work every day.

I see some of me in her. She likes school and didn't want to miss it. So in the end, we compromised. She went to class for an hour, and I personally delivered the excuse to her teacher.

At a press conference the other day, Cal was asked if he had any regrets about his career. Yes, he said, not taking a few more days off. He was joking, but I took him seriously.

My streak was important to me, I told my daughter. But there are times when you have to seize the day and celebrate life's pleasures, to do what's important to you, such as saying farewell to someone you admire. Only if you're going to play hooky, I told her, try to be discreet. Don't tell the whole world - and your boss - about it in the newspaper.

John Fensterwald is a San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, whose colleagues won't believe him the next time he calls in sick. This article first appeared in the Mercury News.

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