Peek beyond The Streak

SportsBaseballJobs and WorkplaceArts and CultureHistoryTy CobbCal Ripken, Jr.

Sometimes, one aspect of a ballplayer's resume is so striking that it obscures every other trait and accomplishment.

Take Hank Aaron, whose 755 home runs seem so monumental that his early years as a fleet base runner who contended for batting titles and fielded with aplomb are rarely mentioned.

Or what about Rickey Henderson, whose 130 steals in a season and 1,406 for his career branded him the game's greatest base stealer but overshadowed his remarkable ability to get on base and thump home runs from the leadoff spot?

No player could be more familiar with this phenomenon than Hall of Famer-elect Cal Ripken Jr.

By making it through five innings Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken etched an indelible memory in the mind of every living baseball fan. He became the "Iron Man," a player who, by dint of toughness, perseverance and luck, played nearly 16 seasons without missing a game.

But what did he do during those games?

It became almost trendy during Ripken's later years with the Orioles to note his pedestrian batting averages and slowly declining power numbers. He reached 3,000 hits and 400 homers, sure, but he did so because he took the field with astonishing consistency for 20 years, not because he was a great player at any one time. Or so the argument went.

Even fellow players tend to talk about dependability, determination and consistency when asked what struck them about Ripken.

"I think The Streak in many ways became my identity," he said. "Not unfairly - it's just a part of who you are, going out there and playing."

But is it fair that 2,632 will take precedence in almost every summation of Ripken's career? Will future generations think of him as dogged more than dazzling? Was he a true great before his work ethic ever became iconic?

Contemporaries, past greats, historians and statistical analysts agree it's a mistake to think of Ripken only in terms of The Streak.

Fellow players respect him as the herald of a new generation of super-sized, homer-busting shortstops. Stat lovers argue that, given his underrated defense and unusual production at his position, the young Ripken was one of the most valuable players in baseball history.

"Cal was really the one who made it an offensive position," New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "And he sort of set the standard for taller guys as well. Growing up, if anyone said you were too tall to play shortstop, your first line of defense was Cal Ripken."

Orioles second baseman might look like the smaller middle infielders of the past, but as a baseball fan, he appreciates Ripken's transformative effect.

"I think he'll be remembered for changing his position," he said. "He basically created what the shortstop position is now. You just have these incredible athletes who are bigger, faster, stronger all the time. But he was really the first."

Said Orioles outfielder , who played with Ripken in 2001: "I'm not sure people appreciate how big a man he really is. And to think how he was able to play that position at his size. He's one of the first big, power-hitting shortstops. I can't think of anybody before him."

Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson certainly hadn't seen anything like Ripken when he called the young shortstop's games as a television analyst.

"I thought, 'Hey, boy, this is the prototype third baseman, big and strong, hits the ball with authority,'" Robinson recalled. "You have to give [manager] Earl Weaver credit for seeing him as a shortstop. When he got out there, you could see, 'Hey, this guy's got the hands to play the position.' But I was pretty amazed he could accomplish the things he did."

Ripken, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, sounds delighted to be remembered as a forefather to Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and their peers.

"The proudest thing I have that I can think of is being given credit for changing the mind-set of being a shortstop," Ripken said. "The guys like Derek and Alex come along and thank me for that. And I try to put it into perspective that my success at the position maybe just changed the attitude toward the position."

Ripken's career can be hard to summarize because it features many solid seasons wrapped around three great ones. He burst onto the scene and in his second and third full seasons was probably the best player in baseball. His numbers then declined fairly steadily for six years before he posted his greatest offensive season at age 30.

He never played nearly that well again, though he produced superb numbers in abbreviated 1994 and 1999 campaigns.

At his best in 1983, 1984 and 1991, Ripken was a great player by any measure. He fielded far more balls than the average shortstop, hit over .300 with rare power for his position and, of course, never missed a game.

"Obviously the best player in baseball at this point," wrote historian and analyst Bill James in his 1985 Baseball Abstract.

Baseball Prospectus keeps a statistic that measures the wins a player is worth above a replacement-level talent. In 1991, Ripken was worth a whopping 17.2 wins. For a little perspective, that ranks behind only one season in Babe Ruth's career and ahead of any season Ty Cobb, Willie Mays or Barry Bonds posted.

That version of Ripken might have been the best shortstop since Honus Wagner. And streak or no streak, Ripken's durability proved immensely valuable. Certainly, many less-esteemed players might have matched or exceeded his career numbers if they had been able to stay on the field. But that's precisely the point. They could not.

"There's a reason why other players stand in awe of that record," Gibbons said. "It's just the hardest thing you can imagine."

After the 2000 season, James ranked Ripken the third-best shortstop in baseball history behind Wagner and Arky Vaughan and the 48th-best player overall.

A Sun poll of Hall of Fame voters found that 177 said they voted for Ripken and only one didn't because he wouldn't back anyone from the "steroid era." Also, in another question, 147 of 169 rated Ripken a first-ballot choice regardless of The Streak. But 22 disagreed, indicating that the record did push Ripken to the pantheon for some.

Fellow players say his career totals are undeniable.

"I think he's in the Hall of Fame easily, regardless of The Streak," Gibbons said. "You look at those numbers at his position, and there's just no question."

"There's no doubt, really," Jeter said. "I mean, 3,000 hits, 400 homers, that's pretty good."


Unbreakable?:

Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak of consecutive games played, 2,632, ranks near the top of the baseball records considered unbreakable. Some of the other numbers unlikely to be surpassed:

• 749: Cy Young's complete games

• 511: Cy Young's victory total

• 191: Hack Wilson's RBI total in 1930

• 110: Walter Johnson's shutouts

• 56: Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak in 1941

• 54: Ty Cobb's career steals of home

• 41: Jack Chesbro's victories in 1904 (modern-day record - Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn had 59 in 1884)

• 2: Johnny Vander Meer's consecutive no-hitters in 1938

• .367: Ty Cobb's career batting average

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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