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Old School Is Fine, Thank You

Writing in the Sporting News of recent issue, Pat Jordan got it all wrong.

Wrote he: “Am I the only person in America who finds Cal Ripken’s mind-numbingly, plodding pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game record a bore? I mean, this is supposed to be the highlight of the season, the day or night Ripken breaks Gehrig’s record? Is this what the game has been reduced to? Awards for perfect attendance?”

First of all, before we go on, let me tell you where I’m coming from: To begin with, I’ve had it up to here with tabloid America. The glorification of the rebel, the outlaw, the guy who makes up his own rules. And makes you live by them. You know what I’m talking about: tennis players who get famous not for their own forehands but because of the one their wives plant on the jaw of officials, basketball players who make millions and don’t show up for team practices and make magazine covers, scofflaws whose very criminality gives them celebrity, the whole sorry, sick panoply of sports in the ‘90s.

Forgive me, but I want to tell you about my grandfather. I don’t think he ever got his name in the paper. Till he died. He worked 54 years as a millwright in a factory. He was due at work every morning at 7. So he was usually there at 6. He sat on the steps and smoked a “paper of tobacco” before he went in and put the smock on. When he got injured on the job, he went right back to work with cotton stuck in the hole in his head. Off work, off the payroll. There was no company-paid sick leave in those days.

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He raised eight children. He went to church every Sunday. He worked 14 hours a day.

Dull? No hero? In my book, he was. No one ever writes any songs about a guy who shows up for work every day, who pays his bills, feeds his family, who makes the tools that build the country. He was not “colorful.” He never robbed any stagecoaches, wrecked any cars (he never had one to wreck). He never went into rehab, never had to be forgiven or paroled. He was even taken for granted by his own family.

I don’t want to finger Pat Jordan, a journalist for whom I have respect. It’s just that I deplore the worship of the splashy and the trashy that has taken over in this country. It is when it is accompanied by sneering at the accomplishments of the dependable, the reliable, the guys who show up for work every day because that is the way they were brought up, that I rise to make a point of order.

Grandpa! Meet Cal Ripken. You have a lot in common.

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Cal has been pursuing his record, Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games, to a claque of abuse. Critics derided him. They periodically called for him to abandon the chase. They demeaned it and him. Pat Jordan even reprises the derision heaped on Ripken. “Haven’t there been times when he should have been benched for an injury or a slump, rather than play merely to sustain his bogus pursuit of a record that for all intents and purposes is meaningless?”

If you’re asking me, Pat, in a word, No. I mean, it isn’t as if he has been up there sitting on a flagpole all these years.

Cal Ripken is the fourth-best fielding shortstop who ever lived. Look it up. He once went an entire season (161 games) with only three errors. Some shortstops make that in an inning.

He has hit 322 home runs, driven in 1,241 runs, scored 1,252. He has 2,340 hits. If you don’t think those numbers are legend-makers for a shortstop, you don’t know baseball.

But for much of his career, you’d think Cal Ripken was doing something reprehensible. Like showing up for work on time. Doing a day’s work when he got there.

He has never broken any barroom mirrors, gotten into a scuffle with the cops, missed the team plane. I don’t think he even chews tobacco. He has batted over .300 four times, has gotten over 200 hits twice. Yet every time he’d go two or three games without a hit, out would come the detractors. He was being selfish, they would scream. Or, they would recommend brightly that he stop his streak one day shy of Lou Gehrig’s. Or stop it at 2,130, right on Gehrig’s.

Let me ask you something: If you were running a business and someone came to you and said he could bring you an employee who would not only show up for work every day for 14 (or 20) years not only ready and in condition but would also be one of your most productive workers, would you start thinking of ways to get him out of the lineup? Put some no-talent goldbrick in his spot? Or would you do a little dance and buy some more shares of company stock?

I can understand some of the frustration of the press boxers. After all, I’m one of them. They like the guy who pitches two no-hitters in a row--even if that’s just about all he did in his career in which he ended up a .496 pitcher. They like the guy who hits 61 home runs one year, even though he never hits over 40 any other year in his career and is over 30 only twice.

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The 9-to-5 guy doesn’t inspire the superlatives. I think, in a way, it’s what happened to Henry Aaron. Aaron felt he never got his due for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time homer record. And he probably didn’t. Aaron, like Ripken, simply did what he was supposed to do, quietly, efficiently, constantly. The kind of steady contribution that gets you a gold watch and a dinner. Willie Mays would have set off more dancing in the streets. Mays did things like hit four homers in a game and over 50 a season. His hat flew off as he caught 480-foot line drives. And, of course, he did a lot of it in New York.

Still, no one suggested Aaron quit one homer shy of Babe Ruth or retire when he hit 714.

Baseball lineups used to be full of guys like Ripken and Aaron--and Gehrig. There were Charley Gehringers, Tommy Henrichs, Earle Combses, Terry Moores by the dozen. What?! You never heard of any of them? Of course, you didn’t. But you’ve heard of tantrum-throwing and racket-throwing tennis brats, you’ve heard of guys who had to be bailed out to be suited up, substance-abusers, wife-abusers, no-shows, no-autograph, no play-today. You’ve heard of guys who didn’t have the self-discipline of a hound dog.

They make good copy. But you can have them. I’ll take Cal Ripken. I’ll take Grandpa.


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