Ripken ready to join the immortals

Rupert Cornwell on the man about to break a 56-year-old baseball record
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The Independent Online
At Yankee Stadium in New York there is a memorial to one of baseball's immortals. "To Lou Gehrig," it reads, "a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time."

In the event, eternity has lasted a shade over 56 years. Barring earthquake, war (or some more modest Act of God like a rain-out) somewhere around 9.30pm tomorrow night, when the Baltimore Orioles and the visiting California Angels complete the five of nine innings required to render their game official, four huge sheets with the number 2,131 will be unfurled on the redbrick warehouse that frames centre field at Oriole Park at Campden Yards.

The cheering which will follow may carry the 200 miles to New York. The Iron Horse of the Yankees will have been displaced by the Iron Man of Baltimore. Cal Ripken, the Orioles shortstop, will have surpassed Lou Gehrig and a record perhaps without equal in any sport will have fallen. The throats of the 48,000 present will tighten, grown men in their multitudes will weep like children. And they should not be ashamed. In the land of tin-plate celebrities, a genuine 24-carat hero is about to be consecrated.

Let those who dismiss the feat merely as proof of Woody Allen's adage that "90 per cent of life is showing up," consider a fact of history and of baseball. When The Streak - the nickname given to both Ripken and his run - began on 30 May, 1982, Leonid Brezhnev was in the Kremlin and British paratroopers had just recaptured Goose Green during the Falklands war. Since then Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev have come and gone. But Cal has just kept rolling on: innings after innings, week after week, season after season for 13 years, without missing a single game.

During the Streak, 3,711 players as of last Saturday have been on the disabled list, while the other 27 major league clubs have used no less than 522 shortstops between them. The next longest current streak is a mere 230-odd games. That Ripken has not been injured is a miracle of fitness, professional skill and plain luck. Baseball's image is of a pastoral, gentle game. In fact its essence is blinding speed, hairsbreadth judgements and bonecrushing collisions. Somehow, in more than 13 years and 9,500 at-bats, Ripken has avoided having a bone broken by a 98 mph fastball. He has not been taken out executing a double play when a 14-stone opposing runner is hurtling towards him at second base. He has not twisted a knee, crushed a finger, or ripped a muscle. He hasn't even had the flu. And, all the while, he has played not just adequate, but remarkable, baseball.

Between record-holder and the record-breaker an uncanny symmetry exists. Both spent their careers with a single club. If Gehrig was the greatest all around first baseman in history, Ripken is the most accomplished shortstop of modern times. His batting average, likely to come out around .275, is not a patch on Gehrig's lifetime .340. But only catcher is a more demanding position than shortstop, and Ripken's fielding percentage of .996 in 1990 is the closest to perfection in history.

But the greatest tribute to Ripken is the sheer lack of resentment at what he is about to do. Neither Roger Maris nor Hank Aaron were ever truly forgiven their lese-majeste in breaking Babe Ruth's single-season and career home run records. Lou Gehrig, who batted behind Ruth in a line- up so deadly it was called "Murderers' Row", is baseball's most tragic icon. Nowhere has sport offered a more poignant moment than 4 July, 1939 when he said farewell to 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. Tearfully, he told them: "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Two months earlier, he had taken himself out of the team, and had subsequently been diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis. The illness, always fatal, is to this day better known as ``Lou Gehrig's Disease''. He died on 2 June, 1941 at the age of 37, holder of a record which, like Ruth's, seemed unbreakable.

Unlike the dissolute Ruth or the reformed alcoholic Mickey Mantle, Gehrig's reputation, off as well on the field, was unblemished. Ripken is a local boy made so good, an exemplar so shining he almost defies belief. He is happily married with a picture postcard family. He does not have tantrums. He performs good works (not least fundraising for research into Lou Gehrig's disease). Unlike so many of his pampered and greedy peers, he actually signs autographs for children for free. Many nights this season, Ripken would stay on in the floodlit stadium long after the game ended at 10.30pm, autographing baseballs and programmes for a line of admirers snaking high up into the stands.

For a hyped Orioles team that has been the biggest flop of the year, the climax of The Streak has been a God-sent distraction. For a sport tarnished by last year's strike, beset by angry fans and tumbling attendances, Ripken's feat offers a hope of redemption. At last, the fading national pastime has a hero like they used to make them, who plays at Campden Yards, a breathtakingly beautiful "old-new" stadium which looks like ballparks used to look before they were torn down and replaced by multi-purpose monstrosities of concrete and artificial turf, who appears in ads promoting not cameras or trendy running shoes but the wholesome, eternal, all-American staples of milk and hot dogs.

And, for a few days, baseball can pretend that nothing has changed. For once it can legitimately wallow in the sentimentality and nostalgia that have blinded it to the game's modern problems. Maybe when the last batter is out and the applause at last quietens tomorrow Cal Ripken too will make a speech to those assembled at Campden Yards and television audiences in 20 countries. He could do far worse than borrow Gehrig's old script.