Milwaukee Brewers coach Tim Foli walked past the media horde gathered in the visitors’ dugout at County Stadium and hollered out to the object of everyone’s attention.
“What’s up? You taking the day off?”
“Yeah,” Cal Ripken shot back. “That’s what this is all about.”
Joking about his consecutive-games streak isn’t something Ripken’s always been able to do. But as he closes in this summer on Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 straight games, the Baltimore Orioles’ steadfast shortstop said the load actually isn’t so heavy.
“I try not to spend too much time thinking about what the streak means to baseball and taking on a burden that’s greater than I’m able to handle,” Ripken said. “To me, I’m simply a ballplayer. I go out and play every day.”
Although he professes not to see the significance in his streak - 2,071 straight games with his name in the Orioles’ boxscore as of Tuesday - Ripken said he’s delighted he no longer hears any grumbling about it.
“The only time that really came up was when I wasn’t hitting,” Ripken said. “When you’re in a slump and you’re trying to hit your way out of it, the answer always seems to be, ‘Take a day off.’ To me, that’s running away from your problems. And the bottom line was I wasn’t making the decision. I was just coming out and the manager was putting his best lineup on the field.
“Within the last few years, the general feeling about the streak has changed,” Ripken said. “It hasn’t come under so much criticism. It’s gotten to the point where it’s given more support, through the collective bargaining process and through all the issues about the strike …
“I try not to … analyze that. It’s potentially dangerous to me, because I essentially want to keep it simple. I just want to go out there and approach it the same way as if it doesn’t matter.”
A 13-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove, Ripken has hit more home runs than any other shortstop and has more RBIs than any other player in the A.L. the last 13 years.
So, the 34-year-old Ripken said he finds it strange that he is getting so much attention for doing what millions of hard-working Americans do every time they punch in: putting in a full day’s work.
“This is what I do, this is what I care about, this is what I train for,” Ripken said. “I come out to the ballpark wanting to be in the lineup every day.”
Thirteen years and 2,071 games since he replaced Floyd Rayford in the Orioles lineup, Ripken is still trying to fathom all the fuss.
“I’ve never really tried to analyze it. I’ve never tried to figure that out. It’s my way of dealing with it: not to put any kind of focus on it,” Ripken said.
Yet, as he weaves his aw-shucks tale for another inquisitive group in yet another American League city, Ripken divulges his foundation:
“Deep down inside you, you know you only have so much baseball you can play,” Ripken said. “Age and time work against you. And while you’re able to play, while you have a small window that you call your career, you go out there and you want to play everyday.”
And if people want to make a fuss over that, then so be it.
Barring rainouts or injury, Ripken is set to tie Gehrig’s record on Sept. 5 and break it on Sept. 6 when the Orioles play the California Angels at home.
All one has to do is look at the disabled list to see how incredible Ripken’s enduring ribbon of games really is: Matt Williams, Ken Griffey, Dean Palmer, Eddie Murray, Gary Sheffield. The injury sickle swoops down on the best in baseball, yet has never gotten near Ripken.
“You’d think I’d worry more about it as I get closer and closer, that you’d change your lifestyle and worry about everything you do,” Ripken said. “But, actually, it’s been the opposite for me.
“Maybe it’s called maturity or whatever, I don’t worry about those things. I refuse to change certain things and be scared of what might happen.
“I’m enjoying it a little bit more. In some way, I don’t know why it is, I’m more at peace with it,” Ripken said. “I never set out to do this. I will continue not to. It hasn’t been a lifelong dream of mine and I don’t know what to make of it.”
Ripken said he believes he’s simply been blessed by having a father who coached in the minor leagues and in the majors, then establishing himself early as an everyday player and staying off the DL.
“So you go out there every day, the next day comes and you go out there and then you look up 10, 11, 12, 13 years later, you’re in this situation,” Ripken said.
Ripken seems to be alone in not eagerly awaiting his displacement of Gehrig as the game’s all-time Iron Man.
“Maybe it’s my own way of dealing with it, not letting myself, but I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Ripken said. “To me, I want to play. I want to play bad and I want to be in the lineup every day.
“And the attention is kind of embarrassing. I don’t give myself that much credit. I don’t give the accomplishment that much importance. I don’t see it like everyone else does. Maybe I just don’t allow myself to. Maybe at some point in my life when baseball’s over and I’m sitting back thinking about my career, maybe I’ll appreciate it in a little different way,” Ripken figured.
“But right now, I don’t have time to appreciate it. I’ve got to go out there and play.”
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