Cal's star unclouded In era of super egos, Ripken's streak of greatness is unassuming efficiency


He shuts up and plays.

For all of Cal Ripken's accomplishments in baseball, that might be his greatest. Change it to past tense, and make it the first line on his Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown.

He shuts up and plays. How many veteran superstars can say the same? The complete list doesn't yield enough players to fill a true-blue, honest-to-goodness All-Star roster.

Dale Murphy, no question. Kirby Puckett, of course. Robin Yount. Cecil Fielder. Tony Gwynn. Joe Carter, now that he's out of Cleveland. Alan Trammell. Andre Dawson. Nolan Ryan.

Others belong, but nearly everyone else qualifies for the All-Problem team, with its merry-go-round of contract disputes, chemical dependency and general discontent.

Ripken, 30, knows nothing of those things. It's one of his many trademarks, yet it often is taken for granted when assessing his brilliant mosaic of a career.

Now, as he prepares for his eighth consecutive All-Star start, it's appropriate to reflect not only on what he does, but also on what he doesn't.

The best part is, there's no danger of sounding like an apologist, for Ripken enters tomorrow night's game as the first shortstop since Lou Boudreau in 1947 to lead the AL in hitting at the break.

His .348 average is the highest ever by an Oriole at this point. His 18 homers are the most by a shortstop since Rico Petrocelli had 23 in the first half of 1969. And his 109-RBI pace would bring him within one of his career-high.

Meanwhile, he never complains about his contract (see Henderson, Rickey). Never rages publicly at his manager (see Bonds, Barry). Never loses control on the field (see Clemens, Roger).

He never drifts into gambling (see Rose, Pete; Dykstra, Lenny). Never gets in alcohol-related car accidents (Dykstra, again). Never requires treatment for substance abuse (see, assorted).

This isn't to say Ripken is perfect; nor does it imply others are evil. The simple fact is, Ripken has overcome his share of adversity, and always with a stiff upper lip. He deserves this season, each and every at-bat.

He has played for only one winning team since 1985. His father, Cal Ripken Sr., was fired as manager after only six games in '88. "Part of the game," he said, and on he went, extending his streak to its current 1,491 consecutive games.

The next year the Orioles moved him to third base in spring training, with the idea of trying out Juan Bell. Looking back, it was an insult for the ages. But Ripken bit his tongue and soon returned to short.

This year the club acquired Glenn Davis and paid him nearly $1 million more. Ripken responded by inviting Davis to work out at his home. His contract doesn't expire until 1992. The money, he said, meant nothing at all.

Surely he harbors his own private resentments, but he never lets on. It's frustrating -- we'd all love to know Rip's innermost thoughts on a few choice subjects -- but in a deeper sense, it's refreshing.

Oh, controversy finds him -- The Streak being the classic example -- but only on the field. He never gets tickets for driving 120 mph, never visits Madonna's apartment, never faces charges of using steroids (see Canseco, Jose).

He plays with a certain dignity, carries himself the same way. He never discusses his private life (see Boggs, Wade). Never abuses female reporters (see Morris, Jack; Gibson, Kirk). Never lashes out at fans (see Murray, Eddie).

The latter point is critical. If anything, Ripken seems underappreciated in Baltimore. Even now, some fans privately lament The Streak. Others insist he should play third base. Almost all of us questioned his hitting the past three seasons, when he averaged 22 homers and 86 RBIs.

What many overlook is that this is one of the great players of his era, perhaps even of all-time. No other shortstop has ever hit 20 or more homers nine straight years, or made as few as three errors in a season.

If all he did was perform, that would be enough. But his is a true stardom, a throwback stardom, a total stardom. He won the first Bart A. Giamatti "Caring" Award in 1989 for all his charitable work. He has been ejected from a game only twice in 10 years.

On and on we could go. But in the end, it all boils down to that one enduring conviction, his simplest achievement, and his greatest.

He shuts up and plays (see Gehrig, Lou).

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