Today Cal Ripken Jr. is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As of tonight at 7 p.m. ET, a bronze plaque bearing the image of his face and a brief account of his accomplishments in the game will hang in Cooperstown alongside those of Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Lou Gehrig, and fellow Baltimore Oriole legends Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Luis Aparicio, and Eddie Murray. Enshrined with Cal today will be San Diego Padres great Tony Gwynn, the best hitter of his generation, who, like Cal, played twenty years for his hometown team and compiled a remarkable career with relatively little national fanfare.
Cal’s ticket to the Hall was paid for by that which is most often referred to simply as the Streak. From 1982 to 1998 he played in 2,632 consecutive games, a Major League and world record. When he surpassed Lou Gehrig’s revered mark of 2,130 straight games in 1995, many fans and commentators credited Cal with saving baseball, which had suffered greatly following the players strike that cut short the previous season and cancelled the 1994 World Series. People ought to celebrate the Streak; it’s an unbelievable achievement. But people who focus too much on it lose sight of what a great baseball player Cal Ripken was. He wasn’t in the line-up all those years just for the hell of it; nine different managers over twenty years put Cal in the line-up for a total of 3,001 regular season games.
Some of his numbers aren’t that impressive. In twenty years, he hit over .300 for the season only five times, and the best of those – his .340 average for 1999 – came after the Streak had ended, when he missed nearly half the games due to injury. His career batting average is .276; hardly embarrassing, but not the kind of number that jumps out at you when considering someone for the Hall of Fame.
Other stats are more impressive: 10 consecutive seasons with 20 or more home runs, a record for a shortstop; 431 career homers, an Orioles record, 345 as a shortstop, also a record; 3,184 career hits; the only two-time All-Star Game MVP in the American League – 1991 and 2001. Cal spent most of his career at shortstop, playing in the same era as the great Ozzie Smith, so he never quite got his due as a defensive player, either. His numbers as a shortstop are arguably more impressive than as a hitter: two seasons with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage; six seasons with five or fewer errors; 4,112 career put-outs, including 11 consecutive seasons with more than 200; 1,682 career double plays, a record for a shortstop; 8,212 assists, third on the all-time list.
Beyond the stats are the moments. I treasure my memories of Cal as player. I vividly recall the home runs he hit in games 2,130 and 2,131 of the Streak. (So what if, as rumored, the fix was in and he hit those homers off nice, fat pitches?) I remember the home runs he hit in the 1991 and 2001 All-Star Games, and the one he hit while my mother and father and I sat watching at Memorial Stadium in 1989, the only time I ever saw him play in person. I remember him embracing Eddie Murray, at the time the O’s first base coach, after singling for his 3,000th hit.
Cal and Tony Gwynn were elected to the Hall nearly unanimously. Also eligible this year was former single-season home run champ Mark McGwire
, whom the Baseball Writers’ Association of America resoundingly rejected in the wake of accusations of steroid use. By embracing Ripken and Gwynn and snubbing McGwire, the BBWAA made the unambiguous declaration that the Ripkens and Gwynns ought to be celebrated, not the McGwires or – I think it’s safe to assume – Bondses. With Barry Bonds, who all the world knows is a steroid cheat, about to claim the most important record in sports, what better counterpoint could there be than to enshrine Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, two men who played without chemical enhancement, who did not leave their teams to chase money, who embodied the best aspects of the game? Cal and Tony showed us all what baseball could be, what it should be, and at its very best, what it is. Congratulations to them both – but especially to Cal, from a kid from Maryland who grew up loving the game in large part because of him. Helluva job, Cal.