In Ripken's Defense
Not Easy Being Greene
Spring on the sports page, home of the sarcastic baseball argument: can the Dodgers put Darryl Strawberry on the DL, or do those singe marks from fastballs over the plate near his belt area count as first-degree burns? When Mo Vaughn (batting .403) meets Greg Vaughn (batted .500 last week), what's a confused novice fan in the stands to do?
My midwestern friend Sean "Dustbowl State" Wissman, for example, politely inquired on these pages Tuesday what might be the possibility of Cal Ripken Jr. hitting .300.
As a resident of Birdland--Oriole territory, as translated for our Royal neighbors here at Harvard--I'd like to clear up a few things about the Ripken story that might have escaped Mr. Wissman's attention.
For one, by throwing up numbers like .300 (batting average), or 30 (home runs) or 100 (RBIs) as an important goal or accomplishment, sports fans and sports writers omit half of every game played on a diamond.
The lineup card comes fully equipped with a perfect square destined to contain each player's position. Batters also, in fact, must field. I should qualify that. Batters like, say, Cecil Fielder, play defense in their spare time. Certain natural fielders, though they are not Fielders, are also granted one of those nine vaunted spots on a lineup card. For ten years, Cal Ripken Jr. has held his spot at shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles.
Defense matters. Whether you're posting two or nine runs, if the opposing team can count on your shoddy work in the field to provide them with their own offensive surge at every opportunity, you lose.
A quick overview of Ripken on defense: Cal holds American League season records for most assists by a shortstop (583); highest fielding percentage by a shortstop (.996); fewest errors by a shortstop (3); most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop (95)... shall I continue? How about holding three of the top 11 fielding percentages by shortstops in major league history?
There's a reason Ripken has attended ten consecutive All-Star games. He is arguably one of the best shortstops of all time. Not a flashy shortstop; not a man who makes the evening news often. Cal's battles are fought in silence, through an unparalleled sense of positioning and a casual completion of every possible out--every day.
When he dives, he rises without rush and finishes his job with a perfect throw time after time after time. He makes the position of shortstop seem simple. Watch him for one game and you'll probably notice nothing special. Two games and he seems pathetically average. But over the course of the season, you find yourself asking what's up with that guy at short who never seems to miss.
Ty Cobb once said, "The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves." Fielding is a war that involves not just a simple nerve but an entire neural network. Should you make the pickoff move now? Should you play the line? Does the outfield play shallow? This war doesn't relent. Every decision you make has alternatives and your choice is easily proved wrong, depending upon variables ranging from the drop of the curveball the pitcher throws to the whims of the third-base coach.
The war general perches at shortstop. General Ripken has maintained his Oriole perch with utter consistency.
Speaking of which, have I mentioned The Streak? Ripken is last closing in on Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak of 2,130; he's due to pass that figure in mid-1995. Some have suggested that a rest might do Ripken some good, that his offensive numbers in particular are hurt by the fact that he plays through minor injuries and without physical rest.
Yes, work at the plate is an exhausting war, too. Guess right and you can sock a bomb to left, touch the bases and come home a war hero. Guess wrong and it's the despair of a strikeout, or the frustration of a ground ball. Back into the dugout and slam your batting helmet against the concrete floor.
Over the past ten years, Ripken is fourth in the majors in home runs and RBIs and leads the major leagues in extra-base hits. He is one of eight players in the history of the game to have hit 20 or more home runs in his first ten full seasons. Just two years ago, Ripken won the league MVP award batting .323 with 34 home runs and 114 RBI. Would you like to sit him down?
Sit him down although he's playing in a park that seems designed to maximize his talents? Forget about the fact that Ripken is one of the greatest shortstops of all time; he's a great batter, performing feats far above what most players, let alone shortstops, could dream of doing with the stick. And he's only 32 years old.
After all this, I may seem to have abandoned my original point: Defense matters. But with Ripken, I don't think the point takes further explanation.
Finally, a smaller but still important note: Forget about numbers in entirety for a moment. They tend to minimize any player's true accomplishments, and especially ignore any signs of the dignity that seems so lacking in professional sports today. Numbers don't tell the story of playing for your hometown and staying there, despite the fact that you could probably earn a higher salary elsewhere.
They don't like how a player can act as a role model for children, refusing to throw a tantrum in the direction of the umpire for every called strike or in the direction of the scorer for an error with which you don't think you should be charged. Ripken's most high-profilead campaign? Cal drinking milk.
We live in a tough world and baseball is, for most of us at the game's margins, a fantasy life. Ripken's fantasy, to quote him talking to Thomas Boswell, is to stick around the game long enough to eventually "hear some kids playing and have one say. 'I'm Cal Ripken.'"
I don't really care if Ripken posts .300 this year. With all of professional baseball's problems--imagined and otherwise--here's one gentleman we shouldn't be complaining about.