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Friday, September 28, 2001
Go see Cal? Hardly

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

For the past few months, one of the constant refrains in every American League city has been, "This is your final chance to see Cal Ripken Jr. play." Here in Boston, the Orioles cruised into town for a meaningless three-game series this week, and the local media coverage has been relentless:

Cal Ripken
Cal Ripken Jr. was awarded a press-box seat in Boston, but he rarely had fans on the edge of their seats.
Come see Cal Ripken! He will never play in Boston again!!!! Do yourself a favor and come see this baseball legend for one final time!!!! He will roller-skate with Jesus Christ during the seventh-inning stretch! The greatest shortstop who ever lived!!!! Cal Ripken, everybody!!!!!!

Hey, it all looks good on paper. The great Cal Ripken. Future Hall of Famer. Two-time MVP. Best shortstop of his generation. More than 400 home runs. Nineteen consecutive All-Star appearances. Mr. Oriole. The guy who broke The Record That Could Never Be Broken.

I guess my question is this ...

Did somebody just wake me up from a coma?

I'm serious. I think I've been in a coma since 1982. And during that entire 19-year period, apparently (hopefully) I hallucinated everything that happened over that time, including the fact that I owned a white "Miami Vice"-style blazer, that I watched the Red Sox come within one strike of winning the World Series, that I once made someone a mix tape that started out with the song "Just Once" by James Ingram, and that I once saw a stark-naked Johnny Pesky in the Red Sox clubhouse.

I mention this only because, during that 19-year span which I apparently imagined, the Orioles came into town roughly 55-60 times and I never remember saying to myself, "Drop everything! Cal Ripken's in town! I need to get to the ballpark and see Cal Ripken!"

This never happened. It never even came close to happening. Then again, I could have been in a coma, so what do I know?

Cal Ripken
Fans have saluted Ripken at each stop on his farewell tour.
The only other possible explanation is that I turned into the guy from "Memento" -- my long-term memory has been erased and somebody apparently wrote the words "Some day you will bounce your grandkids on your lap and tell them you saw Cal Ripken play" on my right arm.

(In fact, I just re-read what I've written so far and I have no idea what any of this means. Who am I? Why am I here? Who's this Cal Ripken guy? Lemme check my arm again: "Some day you will be bouncing your grandkids on your lap and telling them that you saw Cal Ripken play." Good. Now I remember ...)

You get the idea. I'm the jerk. I'm the party pooper. I'm the butt-head sports columnist who feels obligated to throw cold water on everybody. I'm the turd in the punch bowl.

Hey, it's my civic duty. I can't help it. Ripken might have been one of the best ballplayers of his generation; statistically, you could even argue that he was the greatest shortstop of all-time. Yet for someone to receive the suffocating amount of media adoration and publicity that Ripken has received over the past few months, one would have to assume that his contributions on the playing field surpassed mere statistical achievements. After all, stats aren't everything, right? There must have been something about this guy that kept people coming to the park and saying to themselves, "I'm going to see Cal Ripken play tonight!"

Well, I'm sorry ... I was alive from 1982-2001. I was following baseball. And during that entire time, I never heard anybody utter the words, "Cal Ripken's coming to town!" or even, "Hey, Cal Ripken's up!"

In contrast, I'll always remember what it was like to watch Pedro Martinez pitch when he was on -- when he was really on, when his fastball was moving, when he seemed a step ahead of every batter, when he looked like a 16-year-old pitching from a Little League mound, when he took your breath away, when he had you standing and cheering and screaming and saying to yourself, "What's this guy capable of next?"

And it wasn't just Pedro. I won't forget watching 20-year-old Doc Gooden during his breathtaking second season -- no limits, the Baseball Mozart, a no-hitter waiting to happen every five days. I won't forget being in Florida for a spring-training game and watching the young Bo Jackson -- undoubtedly the greatest athlete of my lifetime -- score from third base standing up on a 180-foot pop fly. I won't forget Mark McGwire swinging lumber in his prime, or Ozzie Smith going into the hole, or even Wade Boggs battling off two-strike pitches until he finally found one that he liked.

Cal Ripken? I have no memories. I'm a blank slate. I'm the guy from "Memento." Ripken chugged along for two decades, and I was around ... and I couldn't tell you one thing that happened during that time.

Cal Ripken
Defensively, Ripken was consistently good, occasionally flawless and never breathtaking.
If anything, his career was defined by a certain steadiness, a game-after-game, "He's always there" consistency that was strangely admirable. I remember his breakout season ('83) and his "I'm in my prime" season ('91) and that's about it; every other season lumps together in a collective ".275, 22 homers, 80 RBI, 162 games" kind of way. Defensively, I remember him being consistently good, occasionally flawless and never breathtaking. He rated poorly in the charisma department. He wasn't considered more or less clutch than anyone else who played during his time.

When you think about it, was there really a difference between Ripken and Alan Trammell in their primes, other than about 15 extra starts and maybe eight to 10 more homers per season? Compare the stats from the first section of Ripken's career to the resumes of the current crop of All-Star shortstops (A-Rod, Jeter and Nomar), and it's no contest. It's not even close.

Of course, there's The Record That Could Never Be Broken. And yes, it was amazing, and yes, it helped heal the scars from the devasting lockout in '94 (still the most unbelievable sports event of my lifetime). But wasn't that streak more luck than anything? Ripken never pulled a groin muscle, he never took a cleat to a knee, he never wrenched his back in a collision at home plate. Are these skills? Is dumb luck a skill? Is stubborn endurance a skill?

And by all accounts, didn't he keep that record going for the last 800-1,000 games at the expense of his own health? Didn't his performance deteriorate over that time (look up the numbers), simply because his body was breaking down and he wouldn't give it the proper amount of rest and care? Wasn't he getting a free ride from opposing pitchers (who refused to come inside against him) and baserunners (who refused to take him out on double plays), because nobody wanted to be known as the villain who ended the streak? Wasn't Cal a .250 hitter on a sub-.500 team for the latter half of his career? We're supposed to revere him for these things?

I'm still waiting for somebody to explain why it benefits a baseball team to have its franchise player playing 162 games a year for 16 consecutive seasons. If winning is the bottom line, and it's proven that baseball players perform better when they are rested occasionally ... well, isn't that the most counter-productive record of all-time? Or am I crazy?

Let the record show that Cal Ripken Jr. was a very good shortstop for an exceptionally long time, during which he demonstrated an unparalleled ability to remain on the field under any and all circumstances ... even if it was at the expense of his own team. And those are the facts. Appreciate his career, celebrate his career ... but don't get carried away and start awarding him "Pantheon" status.

Because we both know it's not true.

***** ***** *****

So what's the Pantheon? That's a term my buddies and I created back in college, defined then and forever as "the highest level of transcendence." Pantheon Guys endure; you remember them, regardless of whether they peaked for two seasons or 20. It doesn't matter how long those guys were on top ... just that they peaked, and we were there, and even if it only lasted for two seasons, you were saying to yourself, "Good Lord, that guy is good."

Cal Ripken
Ripken is certainly bound for Cooperstown, but he won't make the Charisma Hall of Fame.
We'll tackle this in much more detail down the road; for now, we're merely introducing the concept and applying it to Ripken's career. Here are the seven basic traits for any Pantheon Guy:

1. The Kelly Leak Factor

When the Pantheon Guy makes The Leap, you recognize the transformation as it's happening. For instance, Michael Jordan resided in The Pantheon for his entire career, but Hakeem Olajuwon only enjoyed two Pantheon years (1994 and 1995). It doesn't matter who was better ... it only matters that both guys reached that rarefied state when they were just dominant. And you knew it.

It's the Kelly Leak Factor. Remember Kelly Leak from "The Bad News Bears," as played by Jackie Earle Haley? Remember his aura? The coolness? The confidence? The knowledge that he would come through any time the game was on the line? Remember how he could shag flies while smoking butts in left field? Remember how much better he was than everyone else? Remember how he drove that stolen van from California to Texas without a license?

When any professional athlete starts reminding you of Kelly Leak ... well, they're in the Pantheon. Period.

2. Pantheon Guys come through when it matters

Remember when Jerry West buried that halfcourt shot at the buzzer to send Game 2 of the 1970 Finals into overtime? The best part of that highlight happens after the shot, when West puts his head down and walks back to the bench while his teammates try -- emphasis on the word "try" -- to mob him. West knew the shot was going in. He knew it. It was never in doubt.

Resident Pantheon member Jimmy Chitwood summed it up best: "I'll make it."

3. Pantheon Guys win rings

Here's where it gets dicey. In basketball and hockey, you need to capture a championship to attain Pantheon Status. That's not negotiable. Football is tougher, because it's impossible for one player to affect a game; all candidates are taken on a case-by-case basis (for instance, Dan Marino makes it, even if his Dolphins never did).

Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson didn't have a long career, but you certainly stopped what you were doing when he came to the plate.
As for baseball, starting pitchers are exempt from this rule because they only pitch once every five days, but if they find themselves in a playoff situation, they had better come through every time they get the baseball (Jack Morris, Bob Gibson, etc.).

Everyday players? They're a different story. They should submit at least two or three seasons during their career where they were the de facto Best Player on a team that either 1.) won the World Series or 2.) came pretty darn close. When the lights were shining brightest, so were they. Remember, there's a reason Kirby Puckett's in the Hall of Fame right now.

4. Reverence from one's peers

Absolutely, positively crucial. You don't belong in the Pantheon unless your opponents are saying things like, "We just didn't have an answer for him" or "I don't think I've ever seen a performance like that." Again, you know it when it's happening.

One good indicator here is the Wow Factor, which describes any moment when a superstar makes you scream, "WOW!!!!" as you're watching a game. And that's a much more rare thing than you might think -- for instance, the only consistent Wow Guys in the NFL right now are Randy Moss, Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre. That's it. That's the list. But potential Pantheon Guys always seem to have those 1-2 Wow Moments in big games that remind you why they're a Pantheon Guy in the first place -- LT, Bird, Montana, Favre, Gretzky and so on. You know what I mean.

5. The Back-Breaker

Ties in with No. 4. Any time you see Player X attempt something outrageous, and it works, and you can actually see the life get sucked out of the other team ... well, it's probably a good bet that Player X resides in the Pantheon.

  Let the record show that Cal Ripken Jr. was a very good shortstop for an exceptionally long time, during which he demonstrated an unparalleled ability to remain on the field under any and all circumstances ... even if it was at the expense of his own team. And those are the facts. Appreciate his career, celebrate his career ... but don't get carried away and start awarding him "Pantheon" status. 
  

Remember Game 6 of the '86 Finals, when Larry Bird pulled down a rebound and dribbled back out toward the left corner and then drained a fallaway three, right in front of the Houston bench? Maybe the quintessential Pantheon Moment of all-time. That didn't just finish off the '86 Rockets, it destroyed them in a "Nazis at the end of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' " kinda way.

Again, you know what I mean.

6. The Bobby Orr Factor

My father once described Bobby Orr as being so good, "You stayed home at night to watch Bruins games, just so you didn't miss anything."

That's the Orr Factor. You don't necessarily need it to reach Pantheon status -- just look at Kareem's career -- but it's impossible for anyone to be left out of the Pantheon when the Orr Factor is involved. For instance, Gooden will never make the Hall of Fame, but everyone who watched him pitch in '85 knows that he belongs in the Pantheon (think Pedro with geri-curls). And Bill Walton might have peaked for only 18 months ... but it's what happened in those 18 months that counts. Same with Bernard King in the mid-'80s.

7. The Grandkids

The final test. After everything else has been applied, take a deep breath, shed your prejudices and ask yourself one question:

"Will I be bouncing my grandkids on my lap some day and telling them that I saw (Pantheon Candidate X) in his prime?"

For instance, my eighth grade english teacher (and basketball coach) has remained a good friend over the years. We caught a game at Fenway last year, and I asked him about Willie Mays -- mainly because everyone from that generation discusses Willie in such reverential tones -- and remembering Willie for 30 seconds put an obvious hop in his step. I could tell. And my friend talked about Willie, and the way Willie carried himself, and the way Willie chased down flyballs to every crevice of the Polo Grounds, and how his hat would fly off, and how there was nobody quite like him.

The twinkle in the eye ... I mean, that says everything. Some people just transcend their sport. They endure. In Ripken's case, his record will obviously endure, but that record had absolutely nothing in common with the aesthetic experience of watching him play baseball. He never took your breath away. You admired him, but you didn't revere him.

I'm sure Orioles fans will remember Ripken with that aforementioned twinkle in their eyes. But you know what? People in New England remember Yastrzemski and Bourque that same way. Same with Yzerman in Detroit, or Malone and Stockton in Utah, or Bruce Smith in Buffalo. Local stars always receive the "rose-colored glasses" treatment. It just so happens that Ripken played in the Washington area -- one of the dominant media markets in the country -- so he received more coverage than just about anyone else, especially as The Streak kept rolling forward.

That's fine. Just understand that, if we cruise through the Pantheon guidelines, the Kelly Leak Factor never applied (No. 1) to Ripken. He wasn't considered exceedingly clutch or anything (No. 2). He did capture a World Series ring (No. 3). His peers revered him, but only because of his consistency and professionalism, not because of superior talent and certainly not because of the Wow Factor (No. 4). I don't remember him consistently breaking the collective back of other teams (No. 5). He failed the Bobby Orr Factor test (No. 6), and he definitely failed the Grandkids test (No. 7).

Bottom line? Great ... but not transcendent.

So what's left? Tons. Wonderful baseball player. Splendid role model. Unparalleled consistency. Significant career. Helped heal everyone's angry feelings towards baseball in the mid-'90s. Carried himself with grace and dignity. Broke The Record That Could Never Be Broken. First-ballot Hall of Famer.

And yet there's a enormous difference between 1.) appreciating a player's superb career, and 2.) elevating that same player to levels out of whack with everything that actually happened during his career -- which is what started to happen this season, at some point, during Ripken's farewell tour.

Let the record show that Cal Ripken played in Boston for the final time this week ... and I couldn't have cared less. My apologies. I think I speak for more people than you might think.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to my punch bowl.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.