An aura of unreality thickened by a fog of bitterness hung over the 1995 major league baseball season. The unreality had to do with the fact that 144 games do not a season make.
Amputating April from the 1995 major league agenda not only distorted the pastime’s normal rhythms; it also rendered this year’s statistics suspect, thus placing a psychological asterisk next to marvels like the earned run average of Greg Maddux, arguably the greatest pitcher since Kaufax.
As for the bitterness, well, pick your gall. The toxic labor dispute that killed the 1994 season and accomplished a perfidy beyond the combined talents of Hitler and Tojo—the cancellation of the World Series—remained, not simply unsettled, but seemingly unaddressed. Attendance was down 20% at major league ballparks. TV ratings continued to sink, and two networks declined to bid for major league broadcast rights. Chili Davis of the California Angels climbed into the stands to assault a fan whose commentary on the game offended the Halo’s sensibilities. Ken Griffey, Jr., declared that helping Seattle fans keep their team wasn’t his concern. Acting Commissioner Bud Selig continued to display the business acumen of a cantaloupe. Union boss Don Fehr persisted in his tiresome (and wholly unconvincing) role as tribune of the wage slaves. Failure was rewarded through the three-tiered playoff system and its “wild cards.”
But for forty-eight hours, on September 5 and 6, the fog lifted as Baltimore, and then the entire nation, found itself enthralled by Cal Ripken’s conquest of what had long been thought an impossible Everest: Lou Gehrig’s “iron man” streak of 2130 consecutive games played. America learned what those who had watched and admired Cal Ripken for fourteen seasons already knew: The Streak was about character, discipline, and intelligence.
That was why moral nitwits like Larry King, who confuse character with celebrity, didn’t get it (King suggested that Ripken simply tie Gehrig’s mark and then sit down). I was in Camden Yards when Ripken tied Gehrig, and the extraordinary outpouring of affection that took place over four hours that night had nothing to do with “celebrity,” and everything to do with a hometown celebration of a hometown guy who is unembarrassed by the quotidian virtues of duty and diligence.
Considerable ink was spilt during “Streak Week” about Ripken’s rigorous conditioning program and his ability to play in pain—a welcome corrective to the foolish idea that The Streak had involved inordinate luck in “avoiding injuries.” As everyone who ever played baseball understood, Ripken broke Gehrig’s record, as Gehrig had set it, not by avoiding injuries but by playing through them. But more should have been said about Ripken’s exceptional baseball intelligence.
Cal Ripken is, by the testimony of his peers, the smartest baseball man of his generation. What slowing of physical skills he has suffered over fourteen seasons has been more than compensated for by that unsurpassed baseball intelligence which allows him to make the most minute adjustments at shortstop (the most demanding position in fair territory) turning hits into outs with awesome regularity. The best antidote to the complaint of the ignorant, that nothing happens in baseball, is to suggest, “Just watch Cal at short for three innings. Nobody else; just him.” And the veil lifts.
Ripken came by the rudiments of his baseball intelligence through good fortune in both nature and nurture. His father, Cal, Sr., whom George Will aptly described as resembling “something carved from a fungo bat,” was a player, coach, and manager in the Baltimore system for almost four decades
As Ripken has testified, it was his father who taught him that you didn’t just practice, you practiced right. Which brings us back to the question of character. I have no window into Cal Ripken’s soul; from the upper deck, he seems to embody a Roman or Stoic, rather than an explicitly Christian ethic. But, in one of those accidents that seem, retrospectively, like acts of providence, the Gospel appointed for the Mass of Saturday during “Streak Week” was Matthew’s account of the parable of the talents.
And that, I suggest, was what the Camden Yards crowd, and the entire country, was applauding, many with a tear in their eye, on the night of September 6. Cal Ripken, Jr. had been given a lot of talents. But his commitment to his trade, his craftsmanship, his intelligence, and his remarkable self-discipline had transformed those talents into a reward no one had thought possible of attainment.