A last working day for ironman of baseball
It's the last home stand of his career, in the dog days of the season, and Cal Ripken Jr. is the first player to take the field for warm-ups.
Some 3-1/2 hours before game time, he walks with a fresh gait, despite having played a 15-inning road game the night before. He carries a leather bag full of baseballs, enters the batter's box, and gingerly scratches the dirt with his cleats.
Then he does the same thing that little leaguers across the country have been doing forever: He places balls on a batting tee and hits them, one after another, until his bag is empty - to right field, to center field, and finally into the left-field bleachers, where so many of his 431 career home runs have landed.
This from a 41-year-old man who is assured a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame, a player who has nothing left to prove.
This from a man who knows no other way, even in the last week of his storied career.
"It doesn't surprise me a bit," says a watchful Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' bullpen coach, who was in Baltimore when Ripken came up to the big leagues as an oversized, converted shortstop in 1982. "His attention has never wavered. He comes to work every day. He works hard every day. He never has to be told what to do."
After this weekend, Ripken will hang up his number 8. The game will never be the same.
There have been faster players, who threw the ball harder, hit it farther, and won more World Series rings to put on their fingers. But arguably, there has never been one who gave more to the modern game than Ripken.
For 19 years, he was a throwback to the days when pros were boys at heart. He wrestled around with his teammates in the clubhouse before games, played with hustle and integrity between the lines, then signed autographs afterwards until all the kids had gone home. His longtime advertising role: pitchman for milk.
He grew up in Aberdeen, Md., the son of a ballplayer, and never really wanted to wear anything but an Orioles uniform.
He didn't complain about money, didn't lash out at the fans during slumps, didn't have scandalous love affairs in the newspaper. He tried to help his team win. It was that simple.
"To me the secret of his success was his competitiveness," says Will George, a major league scout who was Ripken's roommate in the minor leagues. "Cal's the most competitive man I've ever known - from backgammon to checkers to baseball to basketball. He knows what it takes to be great and he sets his mind on doing it."
Ripken will be remembered, first and foremost, for The Streak. He played in 2,632 consecutive games, from May 30, 1982, until Sept. 19, 1998, breaking Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 games. Some observers of the game say it's unlikely Ripken's record will ever be approached - what with today's rotation of "platoon" players, frequent injuries, and bad attitudes.
But he was more than just steady. Ripken was a dominant fielder and hitter during his prime - something that is often overshadowed by The Streak. He was named Most Valuable Player twice (1983 and 1991) and set the record for the highest fielding percentage ever by a shortstop in 1990 (.996). When he was hot, he sprayed line drives into the outfield like lasers and turned double-plays seamlessly. He led the Orioles to a world championship in 1983.
He teamed up with his brother Billy, who was an Orioles second baseman from 1987 to 1992, and played under his father, Cal Sr., the Orioles' longtime third-base coach.
Ripken had a knack for playing best when the pressure was greatest - an ability that surfaced when the camera flashes were popping like an electrical storm. He smashed a home run in game 2,131 of The Streak, as the president looked on. This year he stunned the baseball world again by going deep in his 19th and final All-Star performance - and winning the game's MVP award.
Even when his strength and bat speed ebbed, he pushed on, with an intense stare from his pale, blue eyes and constant adjustments in the batter's box.
Ripken was also a pioneer. Before he came along, shortstops were all glove and no bat. At 6-foot-4, he changed that, and helped spawn today's generation of full-size superstars up the middle, including the Texas Rangers' Alex Rodriguez, who grew up with a poster of Ripken in his bedroom.
"I didn't have models in front of me that could teach me how to make plays, for my size," Ripken recently told reporters. "In a lot of cases, I had to learn myself, using what I knew to try to figure out how to make a play at shortstop."
Ironically, it has also been The Streak for which Ripken has drawn the most criticism. Sports Illustrated recently called his consecutive-games record "overrated," saying that "looking for true significance in the feat is no more fruitful than trying to explain why someone would scarf down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes."
Try telling that to anyone in Baltimore.
"I take offense to that," says Hendricks, an Oriole since 1968. "Here's a guy who takes [practice] ground balls before every game and treats each one like it's the middle of a pennant race. These are the ethics he brought to the game."
Even in his final year, playing with a bad back for a team that will lose close to 100 games, Ripken has been relatively productive, now at third base. He's also been spending more and more time organizing a youth league in Aberdeen.
But for the final days of the 2001 season, he remained a ballplayer, determined to play every day for his hometown fans. "Everything that you hear about him is true," says Orioles teammate Jeff Conine. "Cal is one of us."