Sunday, July 29, 2007

An Appreciation: The Iron Horse and Ripken

Steve Ruark/Associated Press
The Hall of Famer Cal Ripken

The New York Times
Published: July 29, 2007

In 1989, when I was writing a biography of Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken was in his ninth year with the Baltimore Orioles and about halfway through his challenge to Gehrig’s seemingly indestructible record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games. At the time, few regarded Ripken, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Orioles shortstop, or anyone else, as the successor to the Iron Horse.

By September 1995, however, Ripken was on the verge of supplanting Gehrig as the most durable major league ballplayer. Thousands of fans, many in Baltimore, were rooting for Ripken to replace Gehrig.

But there were also many like me, who felt an extraordinary sadness that the record was about to be eclipsed. Others suggested that the decent thing to do was to tie Gehrig’s record, then step down the next day, while declaring that he would be pleased to share the mark.

I met Gehrig when I was a child and had always admired him as an athlete and as a human being. I felt it was palpably wrong for Ripken to deprive Gehrig of his greatest legacy to the game. But then I began to focus on Ripken, who shared many of Gehrig’s values, and I concluded that that thinking was wrong, and unfair to Ripken. When I spoke to Ripken recently, he said that to have taken a day off at that crucial moment, would have been “to dishonor baseball.”

Lou Gehrig

Ripken never set out to make Gehrig his paradigm. “Yes, I respected him,” Ripken said in his typically measured way. “But I was never obsessed with him or his streak.”

Ripken left the playing field in 2001, well after he had carved out his 2,632 straight games, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, receiving 537 votes out of 545 votes cast. He is to be inducted into the Hall today with Tony Gwynn.

What had always been clear about Ripken was that, like Gehrig, he had never been a player with a runaway ego. He had also never projected the persona of a pampered would-be role model, like so many of his contemporaries.

Since retiring as a player, Ripken, who turns 47 in August, has become a prime example of someone seeking self-improvement. He has an instinct for hard work and other charitable endeavors.

“My personal philosophy is to get a feeling of fulfillment through my work,” he said. “I have a desire to create something. I guess that’s why I’ve long been fascinated by two books, ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ The leading figure in ‘The Fountainhead,’ an architect named Howard Roark, is someone I’ve thought about a good deal.”

Those books were the subject of considerable controversy when they were published more than a half-century ago. Their author, a Russian émigré named Ayn Rand, was an advocate of objectivism, which embraced a strong belief in competitiveness and self-expression.

“I’m a hands-on person in business,” Ripken said. “I try to choose the right people for the right job. Currently, about 100 people work for me. But once I set up an infrastructure I don’t micromanage things.”

Among Ripken’s projects is the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, started in 2001 and named after his father, who died of cancer in 1999 after years as a manager in the minor leagues and with the Orioles.

“My dad never made much money in the minors, but he was a great role model and a very creative man around the house,” Ripken said.

The mission of the foundation is to “teach life lessons to disadvantaged youth through baseball.” The foundation estimates that it has worked with more than 500,000 children in 40 states.

The Ripken Learning Center, a program of Baltimore Reads, was inaugurated in 1998 through contributions from the Ripken family. But Ripken himself is never far away from his baseball roots.

His company, Ripken Baseball, owns and operates two Class A franchises — the Aberdeen IronBirds, an Orioles affiliate in Maryland, and the Augusta GreenJackets, a Giants affiliate in Georgia. Ripken had a prominent hand in the selection of top personnel for these clubs, but, he said, “I don’t get involved in what goes on the field.”

Almost a million children play in the Cal Ripken Baseball operation, which was once known as the Babe Ruth division.

“I want these kids, whatever their background, to have fun,” he said.

Ripken said he had no desire to be the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

“However, with the right timing, I’d like to own a major league team someday,” he added.

It seems clear that the controversies about Pete Rose and Barry Bonds have influenced Ripken’s feelings about the job of commissioner.

“I know both of these men,” he said of Rose and Bonds, “but I think it’s wrong for people to come to conclusions about them before all the evidence is gathered.”

Ripken took a strong stand on another matter. He chose not to appear on Don Imus’s radio program this spring after Imus’s remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Imus had invited Ripken to talk about his new business book, “Get in the Game.”

“I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue my feelings,” Ripken said. “It would have made me very uncomfortable talking to Imus.”

Like many professional athletes, Ripken has at times been superstitious.

“Once when I got five hits in a game, I remembered that I had eaten fish and chips that day,” he said with a laugh. “So the next day, I ate fish and chips again. But I didn’t repeat the five-hit performance.”

Before Ripken broke the consecutive-games record, I sent him a copy of my biography of Gehrig. I had wanted him to read it, then autograph it. But he waited until his pursuit ended.

“It’s safe to finally read,” he scrawled in the front of my book.

I cherish the autograph — and understand his superstition.

Ray Robinson is the author of “Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time.”

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