2,131 Lessons

Behind the Mike

It's been a month now since the great Iron Man streak of Lou Gehrig was broken by shortstop Cal Ripken.

It was a topic of some pretty hot discussion when the record was about to fall. Everyone seemed to be asking the same questions.

"Shouldn't he have taken a rest during one of his slumps?"

"Didn't he get sick once in a while?"

"Wasn't he hit by pitches, and spiked by players sliding into second?"

All of them were, and still are, valid questions. But they tend to obscure the excitement and joy that fans of the sport shared as two of its greats, Gehrig and Ripken, were linked in baseball immortality.

It also seemed to blur some of the lessons the streak might have to offer.

I was just starting to become aware of the world around me when he first kicked the dirt around third base.

The streak began on May 30, 1982--my last week of first grade. The Iron Man record fell September 6, 1995--less than a week before the start of my junior year of college.

But he was low-profile by the standards of today's athletes. You didn't see him on too many national commercials. You didn't hear him make an album. You didn't see him joining the endless line of free-agent mercenaries that make ballclubs that much more removed from their fans.

He played like, well, like most of us live our lives. Some days he'd be great; every ball he would touch would turn into an out.

Some days, he'd be terrible, booting a grounder or hitting into a game-ending double play with the winning run on third base.

But he had more of those good days than bad days, and what he lacked in ability he more than made up for by learning all he could about the sport. That doesn't seem like a bad prescription for life.

He'd learn everything about the pitchers he would be facing, from their repertoire to which pitches they would use in certain situations. He studied each batter, trying to determine where to play him in the field.

He thus transformed himself from a good player with lots of tools to a great player with natural baseball instincts.

When he was doing badly, he didn't blame lengthy contract negotiations, some nagging injury, the fans or his teammates. He blamed himself.

He appeared to be the kind of person who, rather than take a break when he had a problem, pounded away at it night and day, never resting until the problem was solved. I suspect that the times he least wanted to come out of the lineup were during slumps.

When the record fell, Ripken didn't do much--he came out of the dugout a couple of times and doffed his cap, but that was all it seemed he wanted to do.

It took two teammates to shove him out of the dugout and into posterity for good, as he took a victory lap around the stadium, slapping hands with the fans, leaping to give high fives to the folks in the centerfield bleachers.

It was as if he wanted to share his experience with the entire crowd, and not grab the spotlight for himself.

When the game ended, and the speeches were made, Ripken spoke not of himself, but about "what was good and right about the great American game."

The postgame ceremony was a little schlocky (the team gave him a new Chevy, not exactly something he couldn't afford or something particularly commemorative of the moment). Perhaps it was the intrusion of baseball's 1990s values onto the celebration of values which are largely disappearing.

Baseball, and maybe the country, would be wise to take a look at some of the lessons the streak has offered.