clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

I used to hate Cal Ripken's Ironman record. I was an idiot.

New, comments

Sorry. Sorry about that.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

I've confessed to a lot of sordid things on these pages. I've been to a Dave Matthews concert on purpose. I believe that most craft beers taste like pine cones, severed toes, and carbonated hot dog water. I still quote Adam Sandler's comedy albums often, if not daily. Especially the skit with the goat. This is a safe space, and I trust all of you, you know? Feels like we've known each other for so very long.

And on the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak, I would like to formally announce that I didn't just ignore it. I was actively dismissive of it. Hated it. Made one of those hand gestures whenever ESPN mentioned it. Inhaled sharply and dropped a fat "WELL, ACTUALLY" whenever someone mentioned how impressive the streak was. If you think I'm annoying now, you can't imagine what I was like when i was a strident, obnoxious teenager. You know that clichéd insult, "You must be a lot of fun at parties"? Well, I really, really wasn't.

My reasoning for dismissing the streak was simple and not terribly original: The streak was impressive, but it didn't help the Orioles win baseball games. Rest is an important part of a ballplayer's routine during a long, long, long, long, long baseball season that's filled with 13-day stretches without an off day. There are plane rides, hotel rooms, extra-innings debacles, nagging injuries, more plane rides, foggy brains, more plane rides, and jet lag. Ripken wasn't refusing to take a day off because his team was lost without him, at least not in the later years. The streak kept going because the streak kept going. It existed for the tautology, not because the Orioles needed it.

It's hard to tell when the streak was a function of making sure the Orioles' best player was in the lineup every day, and when the streak became a separate, living entity. The Orioles won the World Series in 1983, and Ripken was the MVP. They were in a pennant race, and even if they had blown the race open by mid-September, Ripken was still young, still the best. Why would you rest him?

SIGN UP FOR OUR MLB NEWSLETTER

Get all kinds of MLB stories, rumors, game coverage, and Vines of dudes getting hit in the beans in your inbox every day.

The season after that, the Orioles were contending, but out of it late. The season after that, they were out even earlier. The following season they were terrible. Then they were unspeakably terrible. Then they were one of the worst teams of the decade. The entire time Ripken stayed in the lineup, and it was clearly because the streak was a thing. I'm not sure if anyone truly considered him a legitimate threat to Gehrig -- the record was just that ridiculous -- but he played every game because he had never missed a game. It was almost a superstition. But, again, Ripken was still young, still the best. Why would you rest him?

Then he turned 30. The first season was brilliant, but that was just about the last we saw of the old, MVP-winning Ripken. He stopped aping Honus Wagner and morphed into a Jhonny Peralta-type shortstop. Which is fine, great, grand, still a perennial All-Star, but there was always a cloud of "what-if" hanging over those seasons. What if Ripken played 150 games, even? What if he could rest those aging bones in the middle of a slump, or in the middle of a particularly grueling road trip? What would his production look like? Why was the streak more important?

That was my argument when I was busy ruining parties. You'd better believe the chip went back into the salsa after a bite, too. The streak was a vanity project. It was someone doing backflips during a relay race because they got attention for it.

Then I got older. And my body started to suck. People laugh when I tell them that writing is hard on the body, but it's absolutely true. The vertebrae compress, the back stiffens. The wrists sting. The older I get, the worse it gets. If you know someone who writes or codes for 10 to 12 hours every day, ask them.

Yet I know it's nothing, nothing, nothing compared to what a professional athlete goes through. Even the most finely tuned machines in baseball are dealing with something every day. A hitter will take a fastball to the ribs, grimace, and jog down to first, and we'll forget about it by the next half-inning. The baseball-shaped size bruise hangs around for a while, though. So does the INCREDIBLE PAIN. My modest complaints gave me perspective.

Baseball players don't have to be in their late-30s to figure this out. Even the 20-somethings on your favorite team are dealing with something right now. Tightness here, soreness there. Sleep deprivation and general fatigue. It's a grind for the rookies, and it's a grind for the veterans. It has to be so easy to start feeling sorry for yourself, to want a mental day off followed by a physical day off.

And in the corner of the clubhouse, there's a dude who shuts up and plays every day. Who absolutely prides himself on shaking off those cobwebs and bruises. Toward the end, the streak did become about catching Gehrig, at least . For so many years, though, the Gehrig record was so absurd, so out of reach, it was only an abstract consideration. Before that, Ripken played every day because that's just what he did. He didn't want the day off. The streak happened organically.

What you have, then, are a couple of abstract considerations. How much would have Ripken's numbers improved with an extra five or 10 days rest during a season? Uh, well, you see, there isn't a perfect answer for that. Just a general, "a little bit, probably." Now subtract the difference in production from, I don't know, Jeff Reboulet. It's not like the Orioles were giving Robin Yount 60 at-bats a season because they had nowhere to put him; the backups were backups for a reason, and they would have stunk compared to Ripken.

Now take those possible benefits and match them against the benefit of having 24 players in a clubhouse watch one of their teammates play every damned day of a long, grueling season. It's impossible to quantify, but when it was August and everyone was absolutely sick of baseball, how much did it help them to look over and see Ripken quietly doing something no one else in history did? Unless he was rolling around after every game, yelling, "I CAN'T FEEL MY TOES, OH GOD, NO, EVERYTHING IS NUMB, BUT I MUST KEEP GOING. FOR THE RECORD. FOR MY GLORY," he was quietly inspiring his teammates. You know there were more than a few days when Ripken had some serious doubt about going on.

Which might mean nothing to the analytical types around here. Fine, but remember that we're measuring it against the benefit of an extra few days off every year, not the benefits of him getting five strikes every at-bat. Besides, there might have been some ancillary benefits that we can't retroactively quantify, too. Did pitchers not bust Ripken inside because they didn't want to be the dingus who ended the streak? I'd like to think so, and I regret not having the PITCHf/x to tell us.

Long tale short: I was stupid about the streak. I was cynical and young and dumb, and I fell in with a bad stathead crowd that peer-pressured me into smoking hot takes under the bleachers during lunch. If you think that it's weird to have an article justify a beloved record, you haven't dug to the bottom of the Internet. There are still people convinced that Ripken was selfish and that the record was vain and detrimental. Some of them might show up in the comments here if you whisper their name three times ...

I renounce these silly beliefs. And Dave Matthews, too. But mostly, the silly, cynical contrarianism that made me roll my eyes at one of baseball's most impressive individual accomplishments. He didn't twist one ankle, get hit with one pitch in the wrong spot, didn't linger around the bag a second too long when a lumbering galoot was trying to break up a double play. With that good fortune, he played through the aches, pains, drains, and general malaise of 162 games.

Goodness, what a record. And it had to be a player talented enough to keep in the lineup, too. It was the perfect confluence of talent, opportunity, luck, and determination. Which are all things we enjoy about baseball in the first place.

I'd apologize to Ripken, but I think I'll wait for the teenager version of me to apologize first. Not to Ripken, but to me. Did you realize what you made me miss, you weenie? Did you realize what you made me miss?