On the 10-year anniversary of Cal Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's iron-man streak, the Orioles' current shortstop is considering ending his streak. It is an intelligent, rational, practical thought by Miguel Tejada, who, more than any player, knows what Ripken went through.
Tejada's streak is 893 games, the 11th longest all time, the longest since Ripken's 2,632. Tejada, like everyone who has played the game, knows Ripken's streak is unbreakable: Tejada would have to play every game for 11 more seasons, at which time he'd be 39, to match Ripken.
"I was there when he had the consecutive innings [8,243, which ended in '87] going," former Oriole Rene Gonzales once said of Ripken. "I knew he'd get the record. He's an alien."
Tejada is human, and he's tired. As did Ripken, Tejada plays arguably the most important position on the field, one that demands complete attention and requires responsibility on virtually every play. It is a position that is replete with ways to get hurt: avoiding raised, metal spikes while turning a double play, running into the stands down the left-field line or colliding with an outfielder.
Like Ripken, Tejada hits in the middle of the order, another place of obligation, a place for production. Tejada drove in 31 runs in April; he has 57 RBI since.
Tejada knows the heat Ripken took for continuing the streak. He was called selfish. He was said to be hurting the team for playing despite slumping at the plate. He was putting himself above the team. None of this was true, mind you, but ultimately that, not an injury, is why Ripken ended the streak.
"It's time to change the subject," he said.
Given Tejada's fatigue, his RBI drop and his team being out of the race, changing the subject isn't a bad idea.
Tejada knows he isn't Cal Ripken; he knows there will never will be another Cal Ripken. As much as Tejada loves to play, no one has loved to play more than Ripken. As a skinny, high school freshman, Ripken jumped for a throw from the catcher on a steal attempt and the runner plowed into him. Ripken held on to the ball for the out but had the wind knocked out of him. His coach, Don Morrison, raced out to check on Ripken, who was barely able to speak. Ripken looked at his coach and gasped, "Don't take me out."
On April 10, 1985, Ripken sprained his left ankle in Game 444 of the streak. "I heard a pop, there was tremendous pain," Ripken said. Naturally, he finished the game, but his foot, said former teammate Mike Flanagan, "was big -- I mean big. It was all black and blue. There was no way he could play."
Ripken had it treated that night at the hospital. He was given a pair of crutches by doctors and told not to run for at least a week. Ripken threw away the crutches as soon as he got to his car and played the next game.
The toughness comes from has father, Cal Sr. He'd often get violent blood blisters under the toenail of his big toe from playing soccer.
"He would come home," Cal Jr. said, "take out a power drill and drill a little hole in his toenail. The blood would come spurting out, and he'd go 'oooh.'"
When Cal Sr. was in his 50s, he was hit in the face with a line drive during batting practice one night in Boston. Trainer Richie Bancells sprinted to the mound to see if he was still alive.
"What the hell are you doing out here?" Cal Sr. screamed. "I haven't finished my round yet."
Ripken Sr., blood oozing from his face, finished throwing BP, went to the hospital, got stitched up, and was back in the coaching box by the third inning.
Tejada knows that no one loved a competition more than Cal Jr. There is a long, steep flight of stairs that leads from the field of the Metrodome to the clubhouse. After infield practice, Ripken, in full uniform, would run off the field and see how many strides it would take him to reach the top of the stairs. A human, not an alien, would take maybe 10 strides. Ripken was the team record holder with five. Teammate Brady Anderson once tied Ripken's record, but ties weren't good enough for Ripken. He ran it again, and did it in four.
On the night before the 1995 season, the season in which Ripken broke Gehrig's record, the Orioles were in Kansas City. A bunch of them went to former teammate Rick Sutcliffe's house for a cookout. There was a basketball hoop in the driveway.
"Did you dunk?" Ripken was asked the next day. "Yeah," Ripken said. "We played a little two-on-two." Did you have your basketball shoes? "No," Ripken said. "Loafers." He played a pickup basketball game in loafers the night before the season opener, all in the name of competition.
The Orioles used to play a game to determine which player could take the most pain, and which one was the hardest to bruise, a game invented, of course, by Cal Ripken -- who, of course, was also the champion.
"Ten minutes before the start of a game," former Oriole Ben McDonald once said, "a couple of our guys jumped Rip and dug their knuckles in his ribs. We had him pinned down. He was yelling 'No! No!' but he wouldn't give up. He'd rather die. The next day, I had a huge bruise on my ribs, and he had a tiny red spot. I can't wait until the streak is over. A bunch of us are going to pummel him. But we still won't be able to hurt him. He will not bruise."
Tejada bruises, as does everyone else. A day off is a good idea for everyone except Cal Ripken.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.