If It's Worth Doing, It's Worth Overdoing


Havre de Grace. -- Is it really over now? Can we finally step out of the house without encountering memorabilia merchants peddling T-shirts commemorating The Streak?

The Cal Ripken Jr. consecutive-games hoopla demonstrated once again the American principle that if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. What started as something entirely genuine went on so long, and touched such depths of tedium and tastelessness, that by the end it had turned embarrassing.

The frenzy over his 13-year accomplishment became more of an ordeal for this modest and dignified athlete and his family than the tribute he certainly deserved. That he survived it all without once losing his composure is as remarkable as his on-field achievements.

Even here, where the shortstop was born, and down the road in his home town of Aberdeen, local pride doesn't blur the sense that the celebration really got out of hand, or temper the hope that now there can be an interlude of what Warren Harding called normalcy.

That would be good for baseball as well as for the Ripkens. With Lou Gehrig's record broken it's time to send the feature writers and Albanian camera crews home and put the game back on the sports pages.

The Ripken achievement is said to have been a blessing for major-league baseball, but if so it's a curious one, because it highlights baseball's shortcomings more than its virtues.

Ripken is durable, steady, conscientious, uncomplaining. Yet baseball today, like most of its players, seems fragile, neurotic and self-centered. The official noise of the whole enterprise is the whine. Ripken may demonstrate what baseball can be or should be, but he does so by epitomizing all that it's not.

Yet he is also a constructive metaphor for baseball, and for other aspects of life. His career prompts us to think about success -- what it means, what it costs, who's likely to attain it and who's likely to fail.

In life as in baseball, success isn't guaranteed. It certainly can't be reliably passed from one generation to another. The most successful parents often produce the most spectacularly unsuccessful children. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are only one painful example; communities from Hollywood to Havre de Grace can supply others.

But parental indifference, or parental absence, isn't the answer. If you want to achieve great things in your life, you probably should arrange to be born the oldest son of a hard-bitten and exemplary but only modestly successful father. (Somewhat different rules apply for daughters, but that's a subject for another day.)

Cal Ripken Sr. never made it to the big leagues as a player, but instilled in his son his own fierce determination and the disciplined attitude he would need to succeed at baseball's highest level. Had the father been a star, however, the family chemistry would have been subtly altered, and the outcome probably different.

Ambitious children are often driven to outdo their parents, or, depending on their temperaments, to fulfill their parents' dreams. But the children of enormously successful people are likely to be overwhelmed. No matter how attentive a parent he may be -- and he appears to be highly attentive -- Cal Jr. isn't likely to instill in his son Ryan the same kind of single-minded drive that has characterized his own career.

Andrew Carnegie, a different kind of iron man who like Cal Jr. reached a pinnacle of his career at age 35, is credited with the observation that families tend to go from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. (Actually he was fond of citing a much older Lancashire proverb, "There's nobbut three generations between clog and clog.")

Carnegie meant that human nature tends to equalize the advantages some people enjoy over others. It's a far more efficient redistributor of wealth than the Democratic Party, because it doesn't skim off a large share of the assets it's redistributing in the name of operating expenses. In a truly free society, the children of the poor are likely to end up richer than their parents, while the children of the rich are likely to end up poorer.

Institutions, over time, are subject to the same kind of leveling that Carnegie saw at work in families. Baseball once was a cow-pasture sport played by working people for fun. Then it became the national pastime, and eventually an activity dominated by unstable and unattractive people with too much money. Now it seems headed for the cow pastures again, if not for eventual oblivion.

In baseball and otherwise, the most successful careers remain those which inspire others. This Cal Ripken Jr.'s has certainly done. Far above the recent excesses, it has the graceful parabola of a long fly ball, and leaves this great player's admirers wondering how far it will travel and where it will eventually come down.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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