By Eric Neel
Page 2

I hate The Streak.

There. I said it.

Cal Ripken
Cal Ripken was a great player -- that's what he should be remembered for.

I know it's blasphemy. I know I'm going to hell just for thinking it.

But I hate The Streak.

It isn't on my list of the top 25 records of the last 25 years. I won't be rooting for it to be ranked at the top of ESPN25's latest "Who's #1?" show on Tuesday night (8, ET).

Instead, it's on my list of the top 25 hype jobs, right up there with "Justin Timberlake can really sing" and "Dick Cheney isn't running the show; he's just a trusted advisor to the president."

I've got my reasons. But I'll admit, I'm not exactly rational about this. The thing just bugs the crap out of me.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that Cal Ripken Jr. wasn't a great player.

Bill James ranks him as the third-best shortstop in history in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," behind only Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughn; and I'm cool with that.

He was a Rookie of the Year, a two-time MVP, a career .276 hitter who slugged .447 over 21 seasons. He hit 431 home runs and drove in 1,695 runs. He had a very strong arm and he played very, very good shortstop for a lot of years.

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  • The man was a great player.

    But don't tell me The Streak makes him great. The streak is a curiosity; it's an historical weirdness. He was better and bigger than The Streak suggests. Making The Streak his legacy, making it the first thing people think about when they think about Cal Ripken Jr., turns him into a circus act.

    "Ladies and Gentlemen, behold, The Streak!"

    The Streak is overrated.

    So he showed up for work every day. Good. People do that. Longevity isn't exactly an accomplishment. Endurance isn't, in and of itself, great.

    And the truth is (we all know this), The Streak cost him. It cost the Orioles. It cost their fans.

    Take a look at his career month-by-month numbers: In June, over 1,314 career ABs, he was a .299 hitter with a .469 slugging average. In September, in 1,123 at-bats, he was a .246 hitter with a .396 slugging average. Throughout his career, there was a post-All-Star-Game dip in power and average numbers.

    By the time The Streak hit the 1,500s -- by the time everybody started talking about Gehrig and history -- it wasn't about team; it was about ego. Ripken was thinking De La Soul, he was thinking "Me, Myself, and I." And like Pos, Dove, and Mase sang so long ago, every time he laced 'em up, he was ego-trippin', thinking, "Now I'm somethin' like a phenomenon ... I'm somethin' like a phenomenon."

    And he was. And I don't care what he said (it doesn't take a genius to know what notes to sing to the press), and I don't care what his managers said, he dug it. He made The Streak the thing. Somewhere along the way, it became the center of his world. It drove him. He put it first. It was the story. It was his mark in history.

    I'm supposed to love him for that? The world is supposed to admire him for it?

    We're supposed to think The Streak, in all its calculated glory, is any better than Ricky Davis clanging a ball off his own rim looking for a triple double?

    Cal Ripken
    Ripken seemed to enjoy all the adulation he received during 'The Streak.'

    I don't see it.

    I see a guy who was selfish and dishonest about the reasons for it.

    I see a guy on separate flights in separate hotels.

    I see a prima donna fronting humble.

    And I know it's heresy to say so. I know there are packs of Baltimore residents saddling up and riding my way with malice in their hearts when I say so. But I swear, I see something other people could have done if they'd been focused on it, if it mattered to them as much as it seemed to matter to Ripken.

    Show me a record that's a feat. Show me something that hinges on skill and mastery, determination and smarts.

    Show me Jack's 18 Majors, Jordan dominating six straight Finals, Marino's 48 touchdowns, Hershiser's 59 consecutive scoreless innings, Cael Sanderson going 159-0 on the mat or Carl Lewis owning the long jump four Olympics in a row.

    Show me somebody doing something.

    Show me something more than a guy trotting out to the spot between second and third every night.

    Remember when Major League Baseball did the 30 greatest moments in baseball history a couple years back? Here's the Sporting News write-up of the night Ripken passed Lou Gehrig:

    "When Orioles second baseman Manny Alexander caught Damion Easley's short fly ball to end the top of the fifth inning, the game became official, meaning Ripken, the Baltimore shortstop, had played in a major league record 2,131 consecutive games."

    This is a moment? This is no moment. This is a Gertrude-Stein-in-Oakland moment; there is no there there.

    And the 22-minute interruption of the game? And the celebratory lap? And the way fans wanted to touch the hem of his garment, like he was Jesus, or Sam Cooke, or something?

    Ugh.

    But I'm being cold, because, like I said, he was a hell of a player. And my real beef isn't with Ripken, anyway. It's with the way people deified him for The Streak.

    It's with the "work ethic," "pioneer spirit," and "heart and soul" nonsense, like he was somehow qualitatively superior to guys he played with and against, just because they weren't matching him game for game.

    It's with the way folks didn't just root for him, but believed in him.

    It's with the idea that The Streak saved baseball. Fans were just thirsty for a hero after the strike season. The game was down, no doubt; but it wasn't out, and the folks who championed Ripken and The Streak as saviors looked like religious zealots, like schoolgirls screaming for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Desperate, out of proportion, and a little bit scary.

    Worse, the Iron Cal myth was something TV (including ESPN) and the league peddled because it pushed ratings and sold the game as made more virtuous somehow by Ripken's presence. By the time he hit 2,131 on Sept. 6, 1995, The Streak was a commodity, straight up.

    And remember, the same idea was sold all over again just three years later, when Sammy and McGwire were chasing Maris. And it'll be sold yet again when the right time and the right story present themselves.

    I'm supposed to revere such a thing? Such a thing is supposed to stir me?

    Cal Ripken
    But in the end, 'The Streak' received a lot more attention than it deserved.

    Not happening.

    Because I don't buy The Streak. (It's coming easy now; I can say it without looking over my shoulder for an Oriole fan with a hatchet aimed at my head. I'm still worried about hell, sure; but as long as Saint Cal and his streak aren't there, I'll be all right.)

    If playing 2,000-odd consecutive games is a good thing, it's a quiet good thing, the sort of thing appreciated after-the-fact, upon reflection. It's a "huh, look at that, ain't that something" sort of thing.

    Gehrig's streak was notable when it was going on, but Ripken's had the full force of the modern age behind it.

    Gehrig's, at least from a distance, comes off like it was in the grain of his great career. Ripken's streak, shoved down our throats in every possible medium and "reluctantly" promoted by the man himself, was never so subtle. It was a show, complete with flags and speeches. He said at the time he was embarrassed about it and he should have been.

    And so should everyone who lapped it up like warm milk, everyone who saw Ripken as the blue-eyed golden boy beyond reproach ... because he came to work every day.

    His record-breaking number in '95 was big, and made bigger for the attention it got. But there were some other players putting up big numbers that year, too.

    Guys whose numbers helped their teams win games -- guys like Albert Belle, who had an epic line of 50 homers, 52 doubles, 121 runs, and 126 RBI; guys like Tony Gwynn, who had 197 hits and hit .368, leading the league for the sixth of what would eventually become eight times; and guys like Edgar Martinez, who also had 52 doubles and 121 runs to go along with 182 hits, 29 home runs, and 113 RBI.

    Not that you would have heard of these guys. Not while The Streak was going on ... and on, and on, and on.

    Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column appears weekly.




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    DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE