Cal Ripken's Disease

The stadium scene.
June 20 2001 3:00 AM

Cal Ripken's Disease

110000_110625_010619_calripken

Cal Ripken announced his retirement Monday, and the Washington Post began its hagiography like this: "Leave it to Ripken to exit as appropriately, with a perfect sense of his sport and his place within it, as any athlete possibly could." Presumably the writer, Thomas Boswell, defines "appropriate" retirement as one that is handed, as Ripken's was, as an exclusive to the Post's sports writers. Conveniently omitting some of the Iron Man's worst moments, the Post lifts Ripken off the diamond and into the realm of secular sainthood. The canonization of St. Cal isn't journalism, even by the rah-rah standards of the hometown press. It's the sanitized biography of a man who was selfish, aloof, and at times phenomenally shallow.

Advertisement

Boswell admits the Iron Man could be "a little moody" in the years before he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. (He doesn't mention that this period spanned 14 seasons.) But as Ripken approached the record, Boswell assures, he became a changed man: "No one grasps the game better. … Its codes, its traditions, its legacies."

Yet in 1995, Ripken showed little regard for baseball history, admitting to reporters that he knew virtually nothing about the man whose record he was about to break. And the history is particularly poignant. When Gehrig's own streak came to an end, he was in the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and he was dying. Contrast Ripken with Mark McGwire, who rushed to the stands and embraced Roger Maris' family members after hitting his 62nd home run in 1998.

So, Ripken didn't show much respect for a dead man. How did he treat the living? The Post's William Gildea writes, "Ripken took as much responsibility for goodwill as he could, repeatedly displaying attentiveness to fans with autographs and handshakes at every opportunity." But Gildea never lets on that Ripken rarely showed such affection for his teammates. In 1993, Ripken eschewed the team bus for a private limousine. When the Orioles traveled to away games, he often preferred to stay at a separate hotel. The Orioles' disastrous signing of outfielder Albert Belle in 1998 was brought on because the team needed a star, General Manager Frank Wren explained, with "more passion, more fire."

Not content with reconstructing Ripken's character, the Post plugs Ripken's name into the same sentence with other (far superior) baseball legends. "He views his two decades with the Orioles," Gildea writes, "much as Ted Williams did his seasons with the Red Sox. On his departure in 1960, Williams said: 'My stay in Boston has been the most wonderful thing in my life.' " Here Gildea shows only a slightly better sense of baseball history than Ripken. Williams loathed his later years in Boston, loathed the fans, Red Sox management, and especially the press.

Ripken isn't Ted Williams, on or off the field. He was a good but not transcendent hitter. He wasn't a jerk, but he was no more or less selfish, aloof, and shallow than 95 percent of the players in the major leagues. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he falls somewhere in the middle rungs of baseball's greatest players. It's appropriate that we remember him that way.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?