Cal takes his lumps


Fredericksburg, Va. -- SEPT. 6 CAN'T come fast enough for me. On that date, the Orioles' Cal Ripken could break Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive-games record. Our national agony will be over.

The Streak, as it's called, began when Ripken made his Orioles debut at shortstop on May 30, 1982. It's hard to say at what point his perfect-attendance record became known as The Streak, but I remember a 1989 Orioles game in which the telecasters did some on-air calculations and announced that Ripken would surpass Gehrig on June 17, 1995. When the players' strike pushed the June '95 date back, the calculations started all over again.

The sports world has analyzed every conceivable aspect of The Streak. Has playing every day hurt Ripken's hitting? Has he hurt the team by pushing himself too hard? Why did he risk injury with that diving catch in the ninth when the O's were five runs ahead? The commentators have also delved into dark subjective regions. What about hubris? Is he tempting Fate? Were they jinxing The Streak by talking about it?

But as Ripken approaches his goal, an anti-Streak contingent is forming. The essence of this opinion was set forth by Robert Lipsyte in a column in The New York Times headlined "Baseball Needs Ripken to Take a Day Off."

Condemning "the statistical rubble" of baseball, Mr. Lipsyte calls on Ripken to exercise "gratuitous goodness" and perform "an act of conscience, the sports sacrifice of the '90s, perhaps the century," and let Gehrig's record stand.

This line of reasoning captures the feelings some fans have about the sorry state of Ripken-era baseball. Faced with the ugliness and vulgarity that permeate the game now, they yearn for the baseball of chaste baggy flannels, the baseball of players who tipped their caps as they crossed the plate, the baseball that was manly rather than macho.

This was Gehrig's baseball, and so, fairly or not, Ripken's encroachment threatens them. If he fails to break Gehrig's record, goes their subconscious reasoning, the baseball of tight pants, big bucks and egomaniacal arrogance will somehow get its comeuppance.

Despite my own occasional anti-Streak twinges, I don't want Ripken to bench himself. Lipsyte's faith in the humbling power of suttee is touching, but its significance would be lost on Barry Bonds, who stands at the plate admiring his own home run shots before embarking on his swaggering stroll toward first base.

I am also puzzled by Lipsyte's testimonial to Lou Gehrig as "our last clean hero." Gehrig was not all clean. True, he had none of the major vices -- neither does Ripken. But his consecutive-games streak was fudged by many cameo appearances -- something Ripken has hardly ever done. Ripken has played over 900 games without missing an inning, whereas Gehrig played consecutive innings in every game in only one season. If the truth be told -- and many commentators have said this -- Ripken surpassed Gehrig long ago.

Combine the cameo appearances with the fact that Gehrig played the leisurely position of first base to Ripken's dervish position of shortstop, and we see the real Iron Horse.

Frankly, I'm tired of Saint Lou Gehrig. As an accompaniment to The Streak, TBS and AMC have run "The Pride of the Yankees" over and over again, and I have a problem with the scrapbook scenes.

There sits Teresa Wright as Eleanor Gehrig, cutting and pasting her heart out. All the sports clippings fit exactly on the page, she never gets smeared by the ink, and her paste is as smooth as Julia Child's sauces.

When I was growing up, movies about great men always seemed to have a scrapbook scene. It was useful in showing the passage of time, making it possible to move the story forward or introduce a flashback, depending upon which way the handmaiden turned the pages.

No matter where in the book she was working, however, the clippings always fit, the ink never came off and that paste was like glass. It was such a powerful subliminal lesson in Good Womanhood that whenever I asked, "Are my seams straight?" and "Is my lipstick smeared?, " I also wondered, "Is my paste lumpy?"

The final word on baseball stats belongs to Eleanor Gehrig. When Lou was nearing his 2,000-games mark, she suggested it would be more interesting to stop at 1,999. The poor earnest lug didn't get it.

Like Elizabeth Custer, Eleanor was widowed young and relegated to Keeper of the Flame, but I have often wondered what private exasperations this scintillating, sophisticated woman endured.

This piece by author Florence King was provided by the New York Times news service.

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