Here's a little story about a baseball game played on September 15, 1997.
It was late in the season, and the home team had a comfortable 6 ½ game lead in their division, with a 9-game lead for the wild card if it should come down to that. Due to quirks in the schedule, they were to play two consecutive doubleheaders … four games in two days. One of their players was an aging fan favorite, 36 years old in fact, on the downhill slide of an excellent career, not having the best of seasons. He'd been doing well, but over his past 15 games he had hit only .167, seeing his batting average drop 12 points in the process. Then he went 0-for-4 in the first game of the DH. In the nightcap, the opposing pitcher was someone against whom the aging star had struggled in the past … as in 3 hits in 30 at bats struggled.
OK … your team is comfortably in first place, it's late in the season, you've got a 36-year-old player who is clearly fatigued, you're going to need him at his best come the post-season, you're playing two doubleheaders in two days, and he can't hit the opposing pitcher to save his life. So of course, he got that second game off, recharged his batteries, and everything worked out for the best. Right?
Wrong. Because that player was Cal Ripken. And that game was the 2,464th consecutive game in which he'd played.
So he played. His first time up, he flied out to short right field. His second time up, he grounded out with a runner in scoring position. His last two at-bats, he struck out. The Orioles lost the game, 4-1.
Cal Ripken, who will enter the baseball Hall of Fame this weekend, was one of the greatest players ever, fully deserving of the honor of Hall induction. But …
For his career, Ripken hit .276, with a .340 OBP and .447 SLG. For his career in August, though, his numbers were slightly lower (.275/.333/.433) and for September/October, lower still (.262/.320/.428). Whatever explanation we might come up with, there is no denying that Cal Ripken's performance (like those of many others) tended to fade as the season progressed.
Like all of us, Cal Ripken got older. And like other baseball players, after a certain age, his production decreased. Nothing unusual here … not even the greatest players of all time can forever defeat Father Time. Yet after his MVP season of 1991, which was his peak, he played in every game until late in 1998, when he finally ended his famous, inspiring consecutive games played streak at 2,632.
Teachers today are familiar with a certain kind of student, one who works hard to produce material of a certain level, whereby their efforts are perhaps greater than the final results. If you give such a student a grade reflecting those results, say a B, oftentimes the student will press to have their grade raised because "I worked so hard on this paper." They want to be rewarded for their work ethic rather than for their work.
I would argue that this describes how Cal Ripken is perceived. Yes, there have been many great baseball players, but Cal Ripken is special even amongst the great ones because of his work ethic. He always came to work, he always played, and we should value that ethic.
But what if the actual work Ripken did was less valuable than his strong work ethic would imply?
Cal Ripken tended to produce at a lower level late in the season … couldn't it be possible that the Iron Man got tired after months of coast-to-coast flights and day games after night games and all of the other aspects of modern baseball that increase the fatigue a player experiences? If so, wouldn't he have benefitted from an occasional day off, to help keep him as fresh as possible over the course of the entire season? Might his annual production been higher, might he have done more in the latter parts of the season, if he'd rested more often in the earlier months? And if this is true, couldn't you argue that his insistence on taking the field for every game, every season, in diminishing his overall contributions, in fact HURT his team rather than helped it?
How about those years from 1992-1998, when Ripken continued to play every game of every season. Is it really the case that for eight years, the Baltimore Orioles never, not once, had someone who might do a better job on the day than Ripken?
Cal Ripken was one of the greatest players of all time. But he might have been an even greater player if he'd taken an occasional day off. Ah, but then we wouldn't have the myth, would we?
Here's what Tim Marchman wrote yesterday:
Here was a man who stood for old-fashioned American values. Born and raised in Maryland, the son of a humble baseball journeyman, he played for his hometown team and made his name not with the obscene physical talent of a [Rickey] Henderson, but because of his hard work and dedication, best symbolized, of course, by his signature trait -- his overwhelming need to just show up for work. No pampered, spoiled athlete he; this was someone with whom any factory worker or policeman or smalltown mortgage broker could identify, someone who just punched the clock every day and tried his hardest, quietly and with pride.
This was, of course, the most ridiculous nonsense it's possible to imagine. Cal Ripken was 6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds., built like a god, and blessed with enough athleticism that he probably would have been a truly great basketball player. He wasn't the best possible version of David Eckstein or Joe McEwing, but the most physically gifted player in the sport. What made him unique was the overwhelming effect of his personal dedication and discipline on his unparalleled natural gifts; by all accounts, no one worked harder. But the myth of Ripken located his greatness in his will, as if will were sufficient to command the greatest heights of achievement. It isn't.
I greatly admire Cal Ripken, but despise this myth. It grounded his appeal in resentment of supposedly lazy and greedy (and often black) modern players who didn't appreciate the gifts with which they were born and the rewards to which those gifts entitled them. That all the boogeymen and preening villains to whom Ripken was contrasted throughout his career, from the joyous Henderson to the odious Bonds, all worked just as hard as he did, and enjoyed the rightful fruits of their labor no more than he did, never really seemed to register. This weekend, we can honor him without pandering to this myth and thus implicitly denigrating players who were never held out as representative of values that existed in a mythic, hazily remembered past. The man was an incredible baseball player with an iron will, and he remains an icon of simple decency. That's more than enough, and more than worth honoring in its own right.