Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak of 2,130 games was considered one of baseball’s most unbreakable records until Cal Ripken Jr. topped that 25 years ago Sunday, with his record-setting streak ending at 2,632.
Simply because Ripken did it himself, he believes it’s possible for his record to be matched or topped one day. But he might be the only one.
“A logical, rational understanding person would say if I can do it, certainly somebody else can,” Ripken said. “But it takes a commitment over a long period of time. It takes the right support and ideology.
“Somebody can do it physically. Somebody can do it mentally. Obviously, it will take a long time to get to 2,632.”
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde is one of many who believe Ripken is in the minority with that opinion.
“I think that that’s one that’s going to stand forever,” Hyde said.
Perhaps the best evidence of Ripken’s record being safe is the lack of current competition. Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield has the longest active streak in the majors, with 283 consecutive games through Wednesday.
At age 31, Merrifield would have to play every day for the next 14 seasons to be in position to break Ripken’s record. The loss of 102 games from the regularly planned schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t help anyone pursuing that record, but the list isn’t long.
Only five players competed in every game in 2019 — Merrifield, Orioles shortstop Jonathan Villar, Royals outfielder Jorge Soler, Oakland Athletics infielder Marcus Semien and Miami Marlins infielder Starlin Castro.
All of those players are far enough along in their careers that 15 more years of playing 162 games seems unlikely.
Still, there’s plenty of Orioles flavor to the list of challengers to that throne. The longest streak since was by shortstop Miguel Tejada, who from 2000 to 2007 played 1,152 consecutive games. That streak was ended when Doug Brocail — now the Orioles pitching coach — hit him with a pitch and broke his wrist.
The idea of a full, 162-game season is part of the team’s lore. Other Orioles who have achieved that badge of honor in a single season include Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray and Rafael Palmeiro.
“The guys that I looked up to, that were my models, convinced me that that was the right way to go about doing things,” Ripken said.
More recently for the Orioles, second baseman Jonathan Schoop played 162 games in 2016, third baseman Manny Machado did in 2015 and center fielder Adam Jones did in 2012.
It still happens frequently enough — at least five players played 162 games in the past three full seasons. What’s less frequent is players doing so year-in and year-out.
“Being an everyday player early in my career, it was an honor in playing 162,” Ripken said. “It was an honor being out there as an everyday player, to meet that challenge, and that was the ultimate definition of an everyday player.
“I think some of the logic now is to get the best 150 out of a player, let me get the best 145. The definition starts to change in that it’s considered a good thing.”
Even playing 145 or 150 games means playing through injuries and soreness, something Ripken said is still difficult depending on what a player is able to handle.
Giving players rest has indeed become more prevalent, and it takes a certain amount of talent and stature to convince a manager to keep someone in the lineup every day. With Villar in 2019 with the Orioles, having a competent infielder who could hit from both sides of the plate was a vast upgrade over the alternative, so Hyde always found ways to get him into the lineup.
But as improvements in nutrition, fitness and exercise science all take hold to help maximize players’ health in a long season, rest has become a prescribed remedy. Technology and data companies are working to explore ways to be able to determine the amount of strain a body can take before injuries become likely.
There’s also the unlikelihood of a player being productive enough for that long to warrant an everyday spot in the lineup. In the current game, someone would have had to play everyday since 2004 to be in contention to break the record. The list of players still in the majors from that year includes some of that decade’s most fearsome hitters, including Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Canó.
All have had steep declines over that period as well, making their inclusion in the lineup for a full season in their late-30s a difficult prospect. Those types of players also command exorbitant salaries in an era in which team control and cost efficiency are driving the game as much as wins and losses. Several teams would rather have a young player making the league minimum take at-bats instead of a veteran player.
Still, Ripken believes some modern thoughts about the game discount the importance of an everyday physical presence, such as his longtime teammate Murray.
“I’m always of the opinion that there are certain intangibles that I know Eddie Murray brought to the table,” Ripken said. “Eddie Murray could be 0-for-75 but him sitting in the four spot in the order made me feel much better, made the rest of us able to stay in our spots, and I’ll tell you what: with Eddie Murray coming up his third time up and the manager trying to decide what to do in the other dugout, that was always a factor that Eddie put on in the game.
“Some of those intangibles that sometimes are forgotten by the analysis of today, the sabermetrics and the straight mathematical analysis, some of those values of what I talk about with Eddie, I think they exist.”
All those external factors don’t take into account what the player himself is made of, either. Ripken repeated the common thought that a baseball player is only ever 100% healthy on the first day of spring training. He felt he could still contribute feeling about 80% healthy, and had a high threshold for what was limiting him.
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“Some players can convince themselves if they can play a little hurt, and whatever that line is, it’s up to you,” Ripken said. “I always had a pretty good toleration for pain, and somehow I was able to figure out how to get it done.”