Players throw support behind streak

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On May 30, 1982, Keith Lockhart was a student at Northview High School, in Colina, Calif., and Cal Ripken started at third base for the Orioles, against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Since then, Lockhart has been drafted, played for five organizations in 10 seasons of minor-league baseball, married, watched his first child being born and nearly retired. In all that time, Ripken hasn't missed a game.

Lockhart, now 30, finally established himself in the majors for the first time this summer, with the Kansas City Royals, and on the night of July 22, he stood on the edge of the field at Kauffman Stadium and watched Ripken prepare to play in his 2,086th consecutive game. Batting practice, again. Infield grounders, again. At the moment, Ripken was signing autographs. Again.

Everybody knows about how many straight games Ripken has played, Lockhart was saying, but how many ground balls had he taken? How many practice swings? How many hundreds of thousands of throws?

"Look at him," Lockhart said. "What he's doing is so incredible. Do you realize how much better he makes the rest of us look?"

Ripken signed one more autograph, gave a slight wave to the fans leaning over the fence, and picked up his bat. Back to work. Again.

"Everyone in baseball I've talked to wants him to get this record," Lockhart said. "This is important for all of us."

*

Other players and managers stop Ripken and wish him luck, sometimes without saying exactly why, as if mentioning the possibility of injury increases the likelihood.

By and large, they wanted him to get this record. "It has as much to do with the type of person he is," said Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson. "Players care about Cal. They respect him, and they're rooting for him, which isn't always the case when somebody is going after a milestone. I wouldn't say people root against other people, but maybe they're just indifferent, as a whole. As a whole, major-league players are not indifferent about The Streak."

Not at all. Players and managers are wary of superlatives -- maybe, Mike Mussina suggests, they understand how humbling the game can be -- but the praise for The Streak is effusive.

Ripken's streak, says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, "is the greatest single thing we will see in our lifetime in this game. We didn't get to see [Joe] DiMaggio's hitting streak or [Lou] Gehrig's streak. We are seeing this. This is the greatest feat that will happen for me in my baseball career. I'll never live long enough to see something like this [again]."

Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell said: "I think everybody in baseball has admired Lou Gehrig. But for Cal Ripken to break the record the way he is breaking it -- I don't think there can be any jealousy. I think everybody realizes what he's doing is incredible."

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Hal Morris said that when he has gone on the disabled list, he has thought of Ripken. "I think that we as players appreciate what he's done more than anyone else," Morris said, "because you can appreciate how grueling a 162-game season is, and how it can just tear up your body. And it does."

*

Players are protective of The Streak. Seattle Mariners left-hander Randy Johnson, who showed no remorse after beaning Jim Leyritz of the New York Yankees, said that his worst nightmare would be to hit Ripken with a pitch and end The Streak.

Boston Red Sox right-hander Roger Clemens said: "I can't imagine pitching inside to him."

When the Orioles played in Kansas City in July, Ripken fielded a grounder and ran to step on second and start a double play, with Royals runner David Howard bearing down on him. "He was exposed to be taken out, and I went in as hard as I can, and I got him. I got him pretty good," Howard said.

"When I got back to the dugout, a lot of guys were going, 'Man, I can't believe you did that.' "

The Streak. Don't mess with The Streak. Howard thought hard about what he had done. "I mean, Cal's tried to take me out in the past," said Howard, also a shortstop. "I didn't go in cheap or anything. I never go in cheap, I just try to break up the double play.

"The guys [on the bench] were like, 'You almost hurt him.' . . . I was feeling bad about it the whole game. But then I was thinking, Cal wouldn't want people going into second base soft, not playing the game the way they would normally play it, just because of his streak."

Howard asked Ripken about the play the next day, and Ripken told him he wasn't mad, that he understood.

"I know you've come in and tried to take me out hard," Howard said.

Ripken said, laughing, "Oh, I was. But you were running to get out of there."

*

PD It is the play that, according to conventional wisdom, should've

ended The Streak years ago: the double-play attempt. A 200-pound runner sprints toward second and, if the timing is right, throws all the G-force he can muster into the pivotman, into his knees and ankles, two of the body's most fragile joints.

The potential for serious injury is omnipresent. But then, players might argue Ripken is omnipotent. Howard figures he should've known better than to go in hard after Ripken anyway. A former teammate, Bob Melvin, once advised Howard that attempting a takeout of Ripken was something he shouldn't do.

"Why, The Streak?" Howard asked.

No, Melvin replied. "Because it's like sliding into a fire hydrant. He's that solid."

Howard recalled: "It just so happened that that night, there was an opportunity at second for me to break up a double play. Cal was in a weird position when he caught the ball. It might've been Billy [Ripken] who threw it to him, but he was off balance.

"I mean, I hit him with everything I had. Not cheap, just trying to break up the play. And he didn't even move. I mean, his leg moved about six inches. He completed the double play and ran off the field, and I couldn't breathe for about 45 seconds. As I was jogging in, going uuuuhhhhhh, I could see Bob Melvin on the bench, just shaking his head. Very solid."

Quick, too. Despite being a relative monster at shortstop, 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, Ripken hardly ever really gets wiped out, said Colorado Rockies manager Don Baylor. "He can get out of the way."

Baylor said he thinks he first saw Ripken in 1967, while Baylor was playing instructional ball for Cal Ripken Sr. with the Orioles. He watched the young boy grow into an All-Star shortstop who became dangerous to runners intent on breaking up double plays. Runners like Baylor.

Ripken fell on top of Baylor after one pivot. "I remember when you were a baby," Baylor said to Ripken. "You can get up off me now."

*

Many baseball scouts file reports written in direct, humorless and halted words. If a nuclear war wiped out the Earth, a baseball scout might report the apocalypse in this manner: HUGE EXPLOSION, AN 8 ON A SCALE OF 2 TO 8. FIREBALL. CHANCES OF SURVIVAL POOR. WILL CHECK AGAIN NEXT SPRING.

One National League scout, following the Orioles last year, filed this evaluation on Ripken: SOLID DEFENSIVELY, HITS FOR POWER. ONE PROBLEM, ALWAYS HURT AND OUT OF LINEUP.

*

His teammates, Ripken has said, are the reason The Streak exists. He wants them to be able to rely on him to be in the lineup every day, and they do. The Orioles, Anderson points out, haven't had their No. 1 shortstop out of the lineup for 14 seasons. "I think sometimes the significance of that is overlooked," Anderson said.

But not by other Orioles.

Said Chris Hoiles: "I can remember a lot of times when I'm sitting on the bench on a day off and a guy comes up and someone is on first base, at any point in the game, and the first numbers that come out of your mouth are 6-4-3.

"You want 6 to be the beginning of it, because you know he's going to get the ball, you know he's going to make the perfect relay every time to complete the double play. . . . I don't remember ever calling a pitch specifically hoping he'd hit it to shortstop, but I have thought -- hit it to Cal, hit it to short, because you always want the ball to be hit into his hands."

Mussina is renowned for his intellect, his ability to pitch and capitalize on his memory. There are occasions, however, when Ripken's comprehension about the pitcher's strengths and weaknesses surpasses even that of Mussina.

"After a game, he might ask me why I pitched a hitter a certain way. 'Why did you throw him that?' " Mussina said. "I'll say, 'Because it felt right at the moment.' He'll say, 'Don't you know he can't touch this pitch? Don't you remember the at-bats last year, or two years ago? You threw the ball down and away and he just can't catch up to it.'

"Now, he sees five different starters a week, and he remembers certain hitters, against me, from last year or two years ago."

Mussina thought for a moment. "I want every ball hit to short. If I get everybody to hit a ground ball to shortstop, I'd have a pretty good chance. . . . The real question is, am I going to keep playing if he stops?"

Anderson said the only time you truly can understand how much the Orioles need Ripken is when he isn't on the field. In spring training, those rare times during the season when he sits out the last few innings.

"Things aren't the same," Anderson said. "I don't mean to criticize other people, but double plays aren't turned as smoothly, certain balls go through that don't usually go through, people are out of position. I go and get a ball in the gap, and I turn around to throw and I know where he's going to be -- right where he is supposed to be."

*

If you could've hand-picked a year to break this record, Mussina said, "you couldn't have picked a better year, under better circumstances, in a better period of time for baseball."

Fans were angered by the strike, and they've taken out some of their frustration on the players. But, some players say, Ripken and his streak have served as a salve. "With everything that baseball went through last year with the strike, the loss of fans and some of the loss of popularity for the sport, things like this are nice to see," Hoiles said. "Everybody is complaining about money, everything about baseball players, and here's a guy who's going to be playing 2,100-and-some games straight because he loves the job that he's doing."

People will look at Ripken, Hoiles said, "and think, 'Maybe they are out there to play instead of just collecting million-dollar checks every year. Baseball isn't as bad as everybody thinks it is, with guys like Cal Ripken.' "

His colleagues already feel that way.

*

Fans aren't alone in lining up for Ripken's autograph this year. Batboys have carried hundreds of balls and bats and other mementos from the opposing clubhouse -- so many, Ripken says, that he's not always sure whom he is signing for.

Oakland Athletics utility man Mike Gallego has asked for only five autographs during his career. Three teammates -- Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart and Mark McGwire -- and the Tigers' Trammell.

And Ripken. Gallego asked in person, rather than use a batboy as a liaison, during batting practice at Camden Yards earlier this year.

Gallego recalled: "I went up to him and said, 'I feel kind of embarrassed about this, but I'd like to have an autograph.' He said, 'Absolutely, no problem.' A bat was in my locker by the time we got back [from batting practice].

"I know he's getting bombarded, and I hated to be one of the

people who is bothering him," Gallego said. "I don't want to be put in that category. He was fine."

Some high-profile players order extra bats, intending to use them only for autographs. Gallego picked up his bat and noticed some markings on the barrel. A used bat. A bat used by Ripken.

"I felt good about that," Gallego said.

*

Anderson probably spends more time with Ripken than does any other Oriole. They were fast friends after the Red Sox traded Anderson to the Orioles in the summer of 1988, a hard year for the shortstop. The team was awful, he had a subpar year, and his father had been fired six games into the season.

One day, Anderson said, he saw Ripken standing against the outfield fence at Memorial Stadium, and as he approached, Ripken said, "Not now, Brady."

Anderson said, "I could tell he was angry about something, and I just kept walking. . . . I think that was the year he started getting some criticism about The Streak. When I went out there, he seemed so distraught.

"I asked him what was wrong, and we started talking. I don't really remember what was wrong. I think there were an accumulation of things in his life that were bothering him. It was confusing to me, a struggling rookie at the time, to figure out how a guy who's MVP and Rookie of the Year and on a World Series team . . . could be upset."

Anderson tried consoling Ripken, reminding him of his stature and the significance of The Streak.

"What do you think is significant about this streak?" Ripken asked Anderson.

"I said, 'Well, when you're done playing, you're going to go down in history as one of the greatest players ever to play,' " Anderson recalled. " 'It means something to me, and it should mean something to you.' He kind of shook his head and didn't say much.

"I think he appreciated what I said. I think he really didn't believe it."

Ripken and Anderson joked, back in 1988, about the mythical day when Ripken would break Gehrig's record.

"I never really considered that it was [seven] seasons away," Anderson said. "I told him the last week [before the record-breaker], we are going to sleep in the clubhouse and I'm not letting him leave. We'd drive to the park in a Brink's truck, so he wouldn't get hurt. . . ."

No need for Anderson, or any of the hundreds of players rooting for Ripken, to worry. The Orioles shortstop has taken care of himself quite nicely the past 2,131 games, thank you.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
21°