Cal Ripken Jr. – Responsibility
In 1994 major league baseball players went on strike. For the first time in history, the World Series was cancelled. For many baseball fans, this action was unforgivable. They viewed the baseball players, many of whom make millions of dollars a year, as greedy and uncaring. Many fans vowed to stay away permanently from baseball. They refused to go to the ballpark or watch games on television. As a result, the average game attendance for baseball dropped 20 percent in the next year. However, even the most jaded fans could not turn their backs on the events that would unfold on September 6, 1995. Arguably the most prestigious record in baseball was about to be broken. Lou Gehrig, the original “iron man,” played 2,130 games in a row for the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939. To break Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played, a player would have to play 13 years without taking a day off. That would be like a student never missing a day of school from kindergarten through high school graduation. When people spoke of records that would never be broken, Gehrig’s consecutive game streak was at the top of the list. Yet, Cal Ripken Jr. showed them that records are made to be broken.
The irony is that Ripken never set out to break any records. As he put it, “All I ever wanted to do was play well and play every day.” In an era when overpaid athletes take themselves out of the lineup for a hangnail or a sore elbow, Ripken felt a responsibility to the game of baseball and to his teammates to play every day. He once commented, “When my team is out there on the field, I want to be with them.” Most of his fans were hard-working people who could relate to his strong work ethic. Ripken did his job to the best of his ability and gave his full effort day in and day out. He was the consummate professional, never complaining after a loss nor calling attention to himself after a win. Cal Ripken Jr. was a loyal and dependable player who represented everything that is good about baseball.
Breaking Gehrig’s playing record was unlike breaking just about any other record in baseball. For instance, before Barry Bonds broke the single season home-run record, no one knew when, let alone if, he would indeed break the record. However, barring an unexpected injury, baseball fans knew that Ripken would break Gehrig’s record on September 6, 1995, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. President Bill Clinton was in attendance that day, along with 750 members of the press and a stadium packed with thousands of jubilant fans. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Ripken crushed a ball for a home run. Of that hit, Ripken said, “I nailed that pitch, and I knew right away it was gone. What a thrill that was!”
When the final out of the fifth inning was made and the game was declared official, the fans went wild. For 10 minutes, they were on their feet cheering and applauding their hometown hero. Ripken would periodically come out of the dugout to tip his hat to the crowd—the traditional way to say thank you and show respect in baseball. But this night was different. The fans wanted more. Finally a couple of teammates pushed Ripken onto the field, where he spontaneously took a lap around the bases. Along the way, he high-fived just about every fan in the front row. The celebration turned into a 22-minute standing ovation filled with wide smiles and heartfelt tears. It was clear that baseball felt the same way about Cal Ripken Jr. as he felt about baseball.
In a speech after the game, Ripken thanked his family and paid homage to the late Lou Gehrig, who was struck down in his prime with ALS, a degenerative disease. Ripken concluded his speech with these words, “Whether your name is Gehrig or Ripken, DiMaggio or Robinson, or that of some youngster who picks up his bat or puts on his glove, you are challenged by the game of baseball to do your very best, day in and day out, and that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.”
To honor his marathon achievement, Sports Illustrated named Ripken the Athlete of the Year for 1995. He was also awarded the ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year in 1996. Everyone, it seemed, had something complimentary to say about Cal Ripken Jr., but Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers, might have expressed it best when he said, “He’s one of the greatest ambassadors of the game we have ever seen. He’s a great role model. He’s a role model for baseball but also for the entire population.”
Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games in his career—a streak that covered 16 years. On the last day of the 1998 season, Ripken elected to take himself out of the lineup. There was no big announcement or fanfare leading up to the game. Typical of Ripken, he just quietly asked the manager not to play him that night against the New York Yankees. When the Yankees realized the significance of the moment, they collectively stepped out of the dugout and tipped their hats to Ripken. It was their way of paying their respects. In return, Ripken tipped his hat toward them. Although he would play three more seasons, the streak was over. It was the end of an era.
Regardless of what Ripken does for the rest of his life, he will always be remembered for his playing streak. He is the iron man of baseball. To some extent, it’s a shame that most people only know about that particular aspect of his life because the story behind the man is much more interesting. It is important to understand what made Ripken different from other talented baseball players. What drove him to be so dedicated to his craft? Why did he feel such a responsibility to the game and the fans when so many other pro athletes dodge this obligation? What events produced a man of such outstanding character and stamina?
Cal Ripken Jr. was born in 1960, while his father was a minor league player with the Baltimore Orioles. Unfortunately, Cal Ripken Sr. sustained an injury to his shoulder that permanently ended his dreams of making it to the big leagues. He quickly turned his attention to coaching, working his way through the minor leagues. As a result, the Ripken family moved to a different city nearly every season. Cal had an older sister and two younger brothers, and the four children lived in 14 cities while growing up. Cal says that the biggest drawback of moving so often was the difficulty of making friends. The upside was that the family grew much closer because they had to rely on each other. The Ripken family was not wealthy. The salary of a minor league coach is modest, and during the off-season, Cal Sr. had to take on extra jobs to make ends meet. The Ripken family was typical of that era, with Cal’s mother staying at home to raise the children. Cal says that his mother ran a tight ship—he and his siblings were expected to meet certain standards, and mediocrity was not tolerated.
When Cal was 15, his father landed a job in the major league as a scout for the Orioles. It was around this time that Cal was just beginning to take a serious interest in baseball. His dad’s job gave Cal the opportunity to meet some of his heroes. On a few occasions, he was allowed to shag some balls with the players during practice. The biggest asset to his dad’s position, however, was having his father around to help him with the fundamentals of the game. For example, after a dismal freshman year in high school, Cal’s dad took him into the batting cage to work on his swing. Cal’s skills improved dramatically during his sophomore and junior seasons. By the time he was a senior he was hitting .496. Based on his success as a ballplayer, he decided to forgo college and entered the draft. As fate would have it, the Orioles used their second-round pick to select Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken spent 3 years in the minor leagues, paying his dues and honing his craft. Finally, on August 8, 1981, Ripken was called up to the Baltimore Orioles. In 1982, he was named a starter. During the season, Earl Weaver, the manager, decided to sit Ripken down for the second game of a doubleheader. Nobody knew it at the time, but that was the last time Cal Ripken Jr. would miss a game for the next 16 years.
Over the course of his career, Ripken had many highs and lows. Some of his accolades include a World Series victory; being named a two-time MVP of the American League and two-time MVP in an All-Star game; and having 19 consecutive All-Star appearances. He was also only the seventh player in history to hit 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, and he was voted the starting shortstop for the All-Century team. Ripken also endured many lows over the course of his career. He was a part of 10 teams with losing records, including the 1988 team that lost 107 games. He had more strikeouts than any other Oriole in club history, and he endured many slumps at the plate. Through his humility and quiet determination, however, Ripken showed his fans that he could handle the good times and the bad.
When other professional athletes were denouncing the responsibility of acting as role models for their fans, Ripken openly embraced this status. Later he reflected, “Whether I liked it or not, my actions, I came to realize, influenced kids. Just as I had looked up to athletes when I was a boy, some kids were now looking up to me.” He learned this the hard way early in his career. During the first inning of a game, he was ejected for arguing with the umpire. After the game Ripken learned that a young fan and his father had traveled all the way from Virginia just to watch Ripken play and that the boy cried the remaining eight innings. The story had a lasting impact on Ripken, and he learned to keep his anger under control and to maintain his composure regardless of the circumstances.
Despite fortune and fame, Ripken never lost sight of his priorities. On the day that he broke Lou Gehrig’s record, he started his day by driving his daughter to her first day of first grade. Ripken also requested that Ryan and Rachel be permitted to throw the ceremonial first pitch before the game that evening. After the game, he presented his children with his game jersey and showed them that he wore a special T-shirt underneath that read, “2130+ Hugs and Kisses for Daddy.” In the middle of all the hype surrounding his record-breaking performance, Ripken didn’t forget to tell his children how much he loved them.
Ripken is one of the few players in recent memory to play his entire career with one team. Like other talented players, he had several opportunities to make more money by playing for a different team. But when it came down to it, Ripken valued loyalty over money. He never got caught up in the ego-driven arguments about what he was worth as a ball player. He just played hard and let his numbers speak for themselves. His humility was refreshing to witness in a celebrity with his status, and it earned him respect from thousands of fans.
People remember Ripken, the baseball player, for his dedication, loyalty, determination and humility. However, we should remember him for something more. Ripken displayed a sense of responsibility that is rare in the world today. He felt a responsibility to the game of baseball and to his teammates to give his best effort each and every day; he felt a responsibility to his fans and to society to give something back; and he felt a responsibility to his family to be a loyal and loving husband, father, son, and brother. To some people, he is seen as “old school” or a throwback to the way things used to be. Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees, alluded to this when he said, “Cal Ripken Jr. is a bridge, maybe the last bridge, back to the way the game was played.” But Ripken shouldn’t just remind us of how it used to be. He should be a living example of what is possible today. All it takes is a serious effort to put forth our very best—day in and day out. If we approach life with the same work ethic and sense of responsibility as Cal Ripken Jr., it would be amazing to see the difference each of us could make.
Ripken has been asked many times how he wants to be remembered. He says, “My answer is simple: To be remembered at all is pretty special. I might also add, that if I am remembered, I hope it’s because by living my dream I was able to make a difference.” No doubt about it, Mr. Ripken, you definitely made a difference. As a sign of respect, we tip our hat to you.
- Describe the scenario of how some say Cal saved baseball?
- Cal has played in more consecutive games than anyone in MLB history. Why did Cal say that he did it?
- What team did Cal begin his major league career? What team did he end his major league career?
- List several ways that Cal showed a sense or responsibility to the fans, teammates and family?
- How does Cal Ripken, Jr. inspire you and how can his life make you a better person?