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Between the Lines

Cal Ripken wasn't great because he played all those games; he played all those games because he was great.

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/10/2001

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. --Matthew 25:13

The Last Hit of Cal Ripken Jr.'s career just sort of sneaks in there. It's the bottom of the seventh in the day half of a doubleheader, with the Boston Red Sox holding an indisputable 4-0 lead over the home team. Boston's Frank Castillo gets Tony Batista, Ripken's umpteenth and final heir apparent, to ground out to shortstop. Two out. It's time.

Pompous, soupy music swells over the PA. In night games, under the floodlights, the music and the flashing scoreboard and the rest of it do cast a spell--an odd, hypervivid sensation, like living in the climax of a major motion picture. By day, under the natural sun, it seems thin and silly.

Ripken stands at the plate in the daylight. The shadows from the Oriole Park grandstand have only begun to edge onto the grass behind the catcher. The crowd is on its feet, whoops and applause rising as the canned music fades. Castillo deals; Ripken takes a big, slow swing and misses. Strike one. He watches the next pitch: high, ball one. The third pitch he fouls back into the press box. One and two. Ripken watches two more balls go by--a near-strike that has the crowd groaning in dread, then a high looper. He leans back a little and raises his hands as it passes. Full count, and the crowd howls.

But not yet, not yet. Ripken fouls the next two pitches off. For the eighth time, Castillo delivers, and Ripken jolts a high fly ball to left. The ballpark jumps, but the ball tails foul again.

And now, at last, on the ninth pitch, Ripken swings and raps the ball fair, toward the hole at short. Red Sox third baseman Shea Hillenbrand lunges and stabs at it, just enough to tip it away from the diving shortstop behind him. The ball trickles into shallow right field: a hit, number 3,184. Not much of a hit, but a hit nonetheless.

Between the white lines--a catch phrase of Ripken's in the last month, his name for what it was he was about to quit doing--between the white lines, Cal Ripken Jr.'s last go-around was a pretty much a bust. He went 0-for-Boston in his farewell visit there, 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in the cold rain of his 15-inning Yankee Stadium farewell. He finished his career in a 2-for-48 fog.

The polite and facile thing to say is that it didn't matter. From outside the white lines, the love washed down. The fans hollered every time Ripken tipped his hat, exulted when he hit the ball out of the infield. At least twice, once in New York and once at home, they pleaded for a curtain call after a routine fly out. They booed any umpire who called a borderline strike, and when there was nothing to boo but impersonal fate, they booed that too. Always, he returned to the dugout to a standing ovation.

Near the end, there was a nightmarish quality about the adoration, the blind, unconditional approval. Ripken has long been in danger of being subsumed by his own fame, being bronzed alive by his admirers. He is the Iron Man, the Man Who Saved Baseball, Mr. Oriole. For his retirement festivities, the team literally made a symbol out of him--a Cal Ripken Jr. retirement logo, on badges and T-shirts and giant banners, featuring an idealized and simplified Ripken, backlit, raising his right hand in benediction like something off a Chinese Communist propaganda poster. All over the ballpark, Benevolent Cal waved and the people cheered, while the real Ripken popped out meekly and flipped his bat in frustration.

This is why so many people resent Ripken. He has become a hero for heroism's sake, a hard-working, milk-drinking family man. Baseball has been overpowered by patriotism; even in enemy ballparks, fans salute him like he's the flag. Against this, a counter-myth has grown: He's been washed up for years. He's passive-aggressive. He killed the team by pursuing the Streak when he needed days off. One New York editor told me Ripken "singlehandedly prevented the Orioles from winning all these years."

This is spite, and factually incorrect, but Ripken's boosters are as much to blame for it as his detractors are. Because of the Streak, Ripken's career has been painted as a triumph of persistence and hard work--the virtues of a mediocre Everyman. In the ceremonies before Ripken's last game, baseball commissioner Bud Selig took pains to list Ripken's real Hall of Fame credentials first: the fielding records, the 3,000 hits, the 400 home runs, the two MVP awards. But then Selig turned to the Streak. "In 1995, Cal became a symbol for the American work ethic, and a symbol for the America working man. In a time when we needed a hero, Cal Ripken was there for us." And so, he declared, starting next year, anyone who plays in all his team's games will win the Cal Ripken Jr. Award--thereby making Ripken officially synonymous with perfect attendance.

This is a mistake, and a critical one. Ripken himself contributes to the misunderstanding. "My job was to come to the ballpark and be available to play," he said in September. There's a world of understatement in that sentence, the part about being "available to play." Ripken played 2,632 games in a row not because was "available," but because he made it impossible for managers to keep him out of the lineup.

At first, it was simple. He was, as old teammates and opponents reiterated in countless tributes, a brilliant athlete. He has been old-looking and bald and slow-footed for so many years, the sports world has almost forgotten what a superior physical specimen he was. He scored the winning run in the first game he played, won Rookie of the Year his first full season, won the MVP and a world championship the season after that. He won his job by being the best damn shortstop in the history of the American League.

And he kept his job. He kept it because, being the son of Cal Ripken Sr., he recognized that gifts come with obligations. If you love to play baseball--so much that you want to play it every day--you have to be unrelentingly good at it. It's not enough to be spectacular or dominant. It's sobering to look back at all the players who had a claim, at one moment or another in Ripken's playing years, on being the greatest hitter in baseball. Kevin Mitchell. (Does anyone remember Kevin Mitchell?) Jose Canseco. Albert Belle. Cecil Fielder slugged .592 with 51 homers in 1990--then Ripken outslugged him in 1991, winning the MVP award, and Cecil Fielder faded away.

There is something presumptuous and self-defeating about planning for the end of Ripken's career. The Orioles have been trying to do it since 1988, when they fired his father as manager, then traded his close friend Eddie Murray for can't-miss shortstop prospect Juan Bell. If they'd offered him a chance to leave just then, Ripken has said, he might have taken it. Instead, he dug in. He outlasted Bell at shortstop, then Manny Alexander, and then--after Davey Johnson moved him to third, to ease him into retirement--he outlasted Ryan Minor.

And this past June, after manager Mike Hargrove announced he was cutting Ripken's playing time to twice a week, Ripken countered by announcing his retirement--and launching a 15-game hitting streak. In the middle of that streak came the All-Star Game in Seattle. It was to be a nice little memorial for Ripken, among all the younger players who've inherited the game from him. And before the announcers could clear their throats for the eulogy, he pounced on the first pitch he saw.

Ripken's slugging power, knowledgeable sources agreed at that point, was spent. And as Jerry Hairston Jr. testified to reporters before the finale, it's hard to see the ball in Seattle by day. The ball flew straight out, into folklore. "I said, 'No way!'" Hairston said, wide-eyed with the memory. "I felt proud to be his teammate."

No way: After 20 years, it was impossible to expect anything more from Ripken. But through July and August, he kept it up. In city after city, he tipped his helmet and hit a homer: Atlanta, Miami, Arlington, Anaheim, Kansas City, Toronto. Each time, watching on TV, I reacted like Hairston. "Oh, he did not. He did not. He did not." Meaning, he did.

Until, in the chill of October, he ran out of defiance. In Friday's nightcap, he came up in the 10th, having gone 0-for-4 (but making one last great defensive play in the ninth), the Orioles trailing 5-3, two on, two out. Orange placards flapped everywhere; the noise was intoxicating. In the remoter parts of the press box, professional reserve was cracking. A young radio reporter made a swooping gesture. "It's going out," he mouthed. Ripken swung; the ball jumped off the bat; Boston's Trot Nixon settled under it in medium center field.

Saturday, the big day, brought more of the same. There were the ceremonies, the endless presentation of mementoes, the giant number 8's and the section of foul pole, making the infield look like some Ripken-themed mini-golf course. And then there were the Orioles, 97-game losers, striving desperately to make something, anything happen. In the second inning, Brady Anderson--in his own last Orioles game, maybe--lashed a David Cone pitch deep into the right-center alley. Never hesitating, Anderson tore around second base, 37-year-old legs digging in for a triple. There was something almost admirable about it, his attempt to outrun the facts and the odds.

Then again, as Cal Ripken Sr. always said, you should never make half of a great play. The Red Sox cut Anderson down by a mile. Ripken lined out to left field--the last hard-hit ball of his career--and the hope was over. The ancient Cone settled in; the Orioles hacked away, helplessly. Ripken popped up in the fifth, then flied out in the eighth.

What was left? He took the field again in the ninth, his last time on defense. You could see, if you watched, the little things: the swinging of the arms, the tapping of the glove. He moved with the pitch, anticipating what might come--now breaking two steps toward the hole, now hitching toward the line. Jose Offerman hit a grounder toward short, out of Ripken's reach, too slow for Batista to make the play. The last ground ball.

Then came the end of the end: the last rally, Ripken on deck for the last time, Anderson striking out on a high 3-2 fastball. "That was ball fuckin' four, you bum!" a fan yelled.

With that, it was over, all of it. Ripken circled the field in a ceremonial Corvette, waving as the flashbulbs glimmered, as the confetti twinkled, as the crowd waved back. He gave his speech. He threw up his arms, and vanished into the crowd of his teammates as fireworks shot off from the scoreboard: bright plumes, flashes, explosive booms. There was a flurry of light and noise, then one lingering orange spark, hanging in the darkness. And then the last spark, too, went out.

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