Play Ethic : On Wednesday, Cal Ripken Will Be on a Baseball Field for 2,131st Game in a Row, and, Like Lou Gehrig, He Considers Himself Mighty Lucky


It is one of Vi Ripken’s favorite stories, and the mother of Cal Ripken Jr. has recalled it often as the Baltimore Oriole shortstop closed in on Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

Barring an 11th-hour injury or rainout, Ripken will tie the record of 2,130 games at Baltimore’s Camden Yards on Tuesday night, then break the unbreakable on Wednesday.

Vi will be there, remembering the boy who wore his uniform to bed the night before his first Little League game and resisted when told to take it off.


“He finally did, but I went back to his room a couple hours later and he had put it back on and was sleeping with his glove,” she said. “All I could do was laugh. Cal has always wanted to be prepared.”

The boy has become a man, but the man still has the boy in him. And if he doesn’t wear his uniform to bed, it’s hard to remember when he hasn’t been in one.

Thirteen years after starting the streak that has become his identity, Ripken said his desire to play every day is the result of a competitive family, a work ethic inherited from his father and a sandlot passion.

“You relate it to your childhood when you come home from school, drop your books, run out with the neighborhood kids and have a game,” he said recently. “That desire and joy we first experience as a kid always remains.”

Ripken has told his story in news conferences across America this season, and there are snapshots from the Ripken family album and memorabilia from the streak that help illuminate who he is, where he came from and how he is about to corral “the Iron Horse.”


It was nearly midnight, long after the game against the Seattle Mariners had ended, and Ripken pitched batting practice to teammate-pitcher Ben McDonald in the darkened Kingdome a few weeks ago.


An occasional line drive whistled past Ripken’s head as McDonald tried to reach the fence. He finally drove a ball to the warning track as the last of the lights went out and Ripken said, “Thank God, we’d have been here all night.”

Possibly. Ripken would have stayed as long as McDonald wanted. Teammates are amazed by his competitiveness and energy at 35.

“The guy invents games and never wants to lose at them,” center fielder Brady Anderson said.

There is baseball with a taped-up sock during rain delays and teammates duck while Ripken rips it around the clubhouse. There are standing broad jumps over the clubhouse sofa. There are hamstring-challenging contests in Minneapolis, up the 44 steps from the Metrodome field level to the clubhouse level after infield practice, with Ripken believed to hold the American League record for fewest strides at six. There are skating competitions in baseball cleats on wet concrete during rain delays, and clubhouse wrestling matches no opponent is willing to take seriously until the streak is over.

“A ton of fun,” McDonald said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Ripken.

The size has served him well in collisions with baserunners intent on breaking up the double play, and the competitiveness stokes his fire.

Vi Ripken remembered the youngster “who would go bonkers” if he lost a Ping-Pong game to sister Ellen or brothers Fred and Billy, and would insist they keep playing until he won again.


On the trampoline or basketball court in the gymnasium at his house in Reisterstown, Md., Ripken can’t understand when others have had too much and want to quit.

“Everyone else is gassed and he’s still out there,” Billy Ripken said. “They may be only pickup games, but you couldn’t tell watching Cal.”

Ripken grew up a sports fan who always favored playing over watching.

“My dream as a kid was to make it in baseball and go to the Superstars, but when my chance came [to compete in the Superstars], I turned it down because I wasn’t prepared,” he said. “I don’t like to get involved in anything I’m not prepared for, and it carries over to baseball.

“My goal is never to be surprised. I consider it the worst thing that could happen.”

Ripken has not only played in every game for 13 years, he is believed to have participated in every infield practice.

He generally hits early, in the batting cage under the stands at Camden Yards. When teammates go out to stretch three hours before the game, Ripken is ready to play. And he works in the weight room for an hour or two after the final out, which means it’s almost always past midnight when he leaves.

Said Oriole pitching coach Mike Flanagan, a former teammate: “Mentally and physically, he’s the toughest player I’ve ever been around and the best baseball mind I’ve ever been around. . . . He’s always looking for an analytical edge.”


Ripken’s mastery of defensive positioning allows him to compensate for suspect range and makes him an asset, even when he isn’t hitting.

Scout Jim Gilbert suspected that he was looking at something special on that summer day in 1978 when the Orioles brought the 17-year-old hometown kid to Memorial Stadium for a workout at shortstop--he had been a high school pitcher primarily--before making him the 48th player selected in the June draft.

“We hit him so many ground balls that his fingers started to bleed and he had to go into the clubhouse to get them taped,” Gilbert recalled. “I went in after him and said, ‘You’ve probably had enough, haven’t you?’ And he said, ‘Not at all. I want more. I’ll be right out.’ ”


In the 13 years of Ripken’s streak--he has not missed a game since Floyd Rayford replaced him at third base on May 29, 1982, in the second game of a doubleheader--3,695 players have been put on the disabled list, the 27 other clubs have started 337 shortstops and the Orioles have used 29 second basemen.

Ripken said he has tried to avoid injury by always playing hard, but he obviously has been lucky as well.

Matt Williams broke his foot by fouling a ball off it. Dean Palmer checked his swing and tore a biceps. Steve Garvey dislocated his thumb on a slide, ending his National League-record streak of 1,207 consecutive games.


Said Oriole trainer Richie Bancells: “Cal has the ability to put bumps and bruises out of his mind. He has a common-sense balance to the way he approaches everything. He’s concerned about fitness but isn’t a nut about it. He watches his diet but doesn’t go to extremes.”

Ripken sprained an ankle on a pickoff play in 1985--the 444th game of the streak--and might have missed the next game but the Orioles had a day off. He bruised his right knee during a brawl with the Mariners in June of ’93 but ignored the swelling and played the next day.

Three days later he bowled into Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach so hard that Steinbach had to leave the game.

Preparation. Perseverance. Luck.

And genes.

None of the current Ripkens have ever been seriously ill, but it goes beyond that. When Cal Jr. insists that the streak is merely an extension of his philosophy and work ethic, he is talking basically about his father and the environment in which he grew up.

The leathery and laconic Cal Sr. spent 36 years with the Orioles as a minor league catcher, coach and manager, and major league scout, coach and manager. One summer, when he managed Asheville in the Carolina League, Cal Jr. was his batboy, Billy was his ballboy, Fred was his clubhouse man and Ellen operated the scoreboard.

Vi Ripken loaded up the trailer each summer when school was out and took off to find her husband.


It is probably no wonder that Ripken, no matter what time he returns from a trip or gets home after a night game, is up the next morning in time to have breakfast with his 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, and 2-year-old son, Ryan, and then drives Rachel to school.

Ripken may not remember his father being home much, but Dad clearly made an impact when they were together.

Like the time Cal Sr. went out to plow snow. The crank on the tractor whipped off as he was turning it, smashing into his forehead and splattering blood. Cal Jr., then 16, pleaded with his father to go to the hospital, but the older Ripken took an oily rag out of his pocket, put it on the wound, walked to the house to get some bandages and then returned to do the plowing.

More than once Cal Sr. pitched batting practice with a torn rotator cuff or bruised a toe playing soccer, limped home, got out the electric drill and relieved the swelling and pressure by drilling a hole through the nail, ignoring the blood and pain.

“Get the drift?” Cal Jr. said.

Said Cal Sr., now 59: “You have to get the job done no matter what happens. I take no credit for what Cal has accomplished, but maybe that’s a trait that rubbed off.”

The elder Ripken is expected to be at Camden Yards for the first time in recent years Tuesday and Wednesday. He left the organization with some bitterness, dismissed as third base coach after the 1992 season after having been fired as manager six games into the 1988 season.


It was during his only full season as manager, 1987, that son Billy was promoted, becoming his brother’s primary double-play partner through 1992, when he was released.

Cal Jr. was left with hollow and hurt feelings by the sudden separation from father and brother. Nevertheless, Ripken said, he is thankful for the time they had together.

“If you put it all in perspective, it seems like we beat the odds,” he said. “We were brought up in a family where baseball took our dad away a lot when we were kids, but then it reunited us. I’ll always look back on that time as special.”


No one plays 2,130 consecutive games on stamina and durability alone. Ripken has averaged 24 homers and 91 runs batted in a season, is the all-time leader in home runs by a shortstop, leads the major leagues in extra-base hits and is second in hits and RBIs over the length of his streak, is a two-time winner of the American League’s most-valuable-player award, holds 11 major league or American League fielding records and has played 99.2% of all the innings during the streak.

“To play as demanding a position as Cal does and to play it as well as he does is unbelievable,” said Detroit shortstop Alan Trammell, an 18-year-veteran who has never played a full season. “He never gives in. He has to be as strong mentally as anybody who ever played.”

Critics have suggested that Ripken would do his team a favor by taking a rest, but he has never understood why his desire to play regularly would be attacked.


“I’d like to think if I couldn’t contribute like I do on an everyday basis that I’d be big enough to ask out, but I’ve never been faced with that situation,” he said.

“I’ve always believed that to ask for a day off just because you aren’t hitting is to run away from a problem. There are more ways than one to contribute. I learned a lot from Eddie Murray when I first came up about stability and accountability, the importance to your teammates of being out there every day.”

The streak, he said, is simply a byproduct of that.

“I don’t know that I have anything more in common with Gehrig than our work ethic and desire to be in the lineup every day,” he added. “Otherwise, he was a first baseman and I’m a shortstop, and I don’t consider myself the great player that I consider Gehrig to have been.”

Through the Orioles, Ripken has received more than 2,000 letters a week this year, many of them with information about Gehrig and bits of memorabilia. Ripken admits to increased curiosity about the former New York Yankee first baseman, but he has refrained from pursuing it because he doesn’t want it to be a distraction. And, he said, to pursue it would put importance on the streak that isn’t there.

Tell that to the 550 reporters who have been credentialed for Tuesday and Wednesday. The Orioles have tried to ease the crush by holding news conferences for Ripken on the first day in each city, but it is past the point of containment.

Ripken has found it difficult to follow Paul Molitor’s advice to “go with the flow.” The stress is overwhelming at times, Ripken said, and there will be a sense of relief when he has the record, but no less desire to play every day.


“Turning this into a celebration is difficult for Cal, but he’s accepted the fact that we have to do some things that will allow our fans to celebrate the moment,” said John Maroon, the Orioles’ public relations director. “I think he’s come to grips with the magnitude of the accomplishment and realizes we can’t just treat it like another game.”

Ripken, after all, is more than an iron man and future Hall of Fame player.

He is a hometown boy who has spent his career with the hometown team, and that continuity means a lot in Baltimore.

He and wife Kelly also have donated $250,000 to start an adult literacy program, and they have helped generate more than that in contributions.

They also donated $50,000 to the Sam Hulett Fund, named for former teammate Tim Hulett’s son, killed in an auto accident, and contributed significantly to the city’s foster care program from Cal Bar sales and milk advertisements.

In addition, the sale of supplemental box seats for the tying and record-setting games will generate $1 million for the study of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that claimed Gehrig, at Johns Hopkins University.

Ripken’s streak has also been a tonic for baseball in the painful aftermath of the strike, as has his patience in signing thousands of autographs, but never for a price.


“A person asking for an autograph is looking for the emotions of the moment, and a ticket stub with somebody’s name on it captures a memory as good as anything,” he said.

“From a selfish standpoint, I’ve always been flattered people wanted me to sign. It serves to recall a simpler time when I first played professionally, which was the greatest time for me. Your career is unfolding and your relationship with the fans is really starting. It’s always there, but sometimes other issues get in the way and you forget about the things that mean the most.

“I happen to be one of the luckiest people in the world that I grew up in the middle of baseball.”

In another time and place, a dying Lou Gehrig said he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He and Ripken seem to have more in common than their identifying streaks.