For years and years, Cal Ripken, America's white-bread hero, lived a lie.
He swore he didn't care about The Streak.
He said repeatedly that The Streak wasn't the point. He said the point was that his job was to play every day, and so he played every day. And that it wasn't any more complicated than that.
It was, of course. He knew it. We knew it.
And he knew that we knew that he knew.
Eventually, when The Streak took on mythic proportions, The Streak would own him, not the other way around. It was the monster that must be fed, 162 times a year. What the monster wanted, each day, was a little larger slice of Ripken himself until all that was left was . . . the monster.
When the critics called him selfish, Ripken said that didn't matter either. This was also a lie.
He would explain that he was just a lunch-pail kind of guy doing his lunch-pail job, like any other working stiff, except, of course, for the $6 million payday. He may not be the most introspective guy in the world, but he's not dumb either.
The criticism cut to the bone, or deeper. Playing every day seemed like the most unselfish of acts. But Ripken knew, or at least suspected, a deeper truth. What were his motives? When he'd go deep into a hitting slump -- and Ripken's career has been marked as much by inexplicable slumps as by MVP awards -- he had to wonder whether it would have been better to take a day off.
Managers couldn't bench him. Not unless you wanted to be fired, Johnny Oates once said. Or run out of town, local hero Frank Robinson once said.
Only Ripken could bench himself. And he wouldn't. He couldn't.
On the talk shows, Ripken's motives make for good drive-time psychology. You hear of the famous Ripken endurance, reliability, perseverance. And you hear about the Ripken who thinks first of himself, as Pete Rose did, or van Gogh.
There's no genius to this streak. There's no art at all. It's the streak born of the Woody Allen line, that 90 percent of life is showing up.
Poets aren't singing of Ripken, unless it was when Shakespeare said, "Men of few words are the best." The Streak is not romantic. It's not heroic. It's the Energizer Bunny commercial.
Although Ripken will surpass Lou "I'm the luckiest, luckiest, luckiest" Gehrig, Ripken can't match Gehrig for pathos. Gehrig was Housman's athlete dying young.
There's no tragedy in Ripken's life. He plays baseball. To understand him, you have only to watch him in the field, where he is a master. He plays shortstop, the most balletic position in the game. And yet, Ripken manages to play it like he's making a watch. There's no extra movement. If he played football, he'd never spike the ball. If he played basketball, he'd never dunk.
There's no wonder that the Chevy Trucks, like a rock, paid Ripken $700,000 to be a spokesman. Of course they wanted him. Ripken, the $6 million man, was already driving a Chevy Suburban, the world's ugliest, un-sexiest truck/car.
It isn't as if he isn't pleased being rich and famous. But he isn't comfortable with fame. He never wanted to be the center of attention. He was happy when some other teammate was expected to carry the load. I can't carry a team, he said more than once.
But it was The Streak that made him most uncomfortable. The truth is, though, The Streak never bothered his play. But all the talk about whether The Streak affected his play did affect him. He pressed. He wanted to prove to us -- to himself, too -- that it wasn't true. And often the slump would deepen.
And here's a final irony: Ripken has been slumping of late. At any other time, in any other year, the talk shows would be full of Ripken-needs-a-day-off, as if one day off in a long season somehow refreshes a batter, as if The Streak weren't bigger than Ripken, and certainly bigger than the small-minded caller.
This year, The Streak is universally celebrated. And, for the first time, in spite of himself, Ripken is enjoying it. When each game becomes official, the fans give him a standing ovation, and Ripken, who tries not to feel things too deeply on the field, who prides himself on his poise, chokes up and his blue eyes run red.
On Wednesday, he gets the record. Meaning, finally, he won't have to defend The Streak any more. To us. Or to himself.