What Becomes a Legend Most?
We got a sampling of this malady last week when Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. announced his plans to retire at the end of this season.
This announcement sparked an outburst of accolades that would have been unseemly even if we had been talking about a star, such as Michael Jordan, who retired at or near the top of his game and who had led his team to championship after championship. Applied to Ripken, a career .276 hitter whose team has not won a damned thing since he's been its leader, this unabashed gushing is downright embarrassing. Even 8-year-olds display more cool.
For most baseball fans, Ripken Fever appears to be relatively benign. Fans appear able to cheer for Ripken at the ballpark. Praise him in their local bar. Then go home, mow the lawn, pay the bills, live out their lives as God intended.
Ripken Fever may even be beneficial to Major League Baseball in that it gives the sport an inoffensive hero who can be embraced throughout the league.
But Ripken Fever is deadly to sportswriters and broadcast commentators, a sort of Mad Cow Disease for the media. We look to the media to provide the information and perspective we need to form our own opinions. Sportswriters cannot do either of those effectively when their collective lips are planted so firmly to Ripken's buttocks.
And I believe Ripken Fever has been harmful to the team. My theory is that major-league players, each of whom came of age swathed in a cocoon of adulation themselves, get tired of all the attention given to Ripken. They get tired of being called upon to testify to his greatness, as they are constantly asked to do. They get tired of coming to the park only to discover that yet another game has been delayed for yet another fan-appreciation night.
Fed up with one man soaking up all the praise, Ripken's teammates lose their edge year after year. You can look it up. The Orioles, under Ripken's leadership, perennially have been one of the great chronic underachievers in all of Major League Baseball. This year has been fairly typical. The team has two or three nights of crisp play, followed by an equal number of listless games.
The Orioles last won the World Series in 1983, a year during which Ripken enjoyed a stellar season. He batted .318, drove in 102 runs, and hit 27 home runs. But back then he was the new kid on a veteran team. As the older guys retired and Ripken's legend grew, the team plummeted into mediocrity. In the late 1980s, when both the media and fans grew infatuated with Ripken's consecutive-innings and -games streak, the Orioles struggled to win as many as half their games. Manager Cal Ripken Sr. finally halted one of the streaks at 8,243 innings in 1987. Even then, writers were saying that only Ripken's father had the moral authority to break the streak--as though Junior's record was more important than the team.
Through the 1990s, as Ripken's legend grew because of his consecutive-games streak, his team managed to win just 51 percent of its games and became noted as one of the most disappointing clubs in baseball. The exception occurred in 1996 and '97 when Davey Johnson came to town as manager, wrestled leadership away from Ripken, and guided the team to the playoffs. The moment Johnson left and team leadership reverted back to Ripken, the Orioles returned to their mediocre ways.
I hope you will note that none of this is necessarily Ripken's fault. He has had a true Hall of Fame career--421 career home runs, the records for consecutive innings and consecutive games, 17 All Star appearances, American League Rookie of the Year in 1982, and two Gold Gloves.
Ripken can't help it if Baltimore's sports community treats those numbers as if they were the résumé of a god. In fact, given the unseemly reverence with which he is treated here, you have to admire his humility. Still, it is good to know that the only known cure for Ripken Fever is right around the corner. He will retire at the end of this season, and at last his teammates can peep out from under his shadow.
Or maybe I'm being overly optimistic. I can imagine this town's sportswriters spending next season asking players, "Don't you miss Cal? Don't you wish Cal were here?" And the curse of mediocrity born of Ripken Fever will linger on.
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