SEATTLE – He wanted the sendoffs that major league teams gave him to be joyous, not sad, occasions, but this one got to him.
The Seattle Mariners were paying tribute to Cal Ripken Jr. on his final visit to Safeco Field and film clips of his illustrious career were being shown on the center field screen before Sunday afternoon’s game between the Mariners and the Baltimore Orioles.
Seated beside his wife and family and Mariner officials in front of home plate, he watched as a young, full-head-of-hair, full-head-of-steam Ripken appeared on the screen. There was Ripken diving to snag a ground ball. There was Ripken hitting a dramatic home run. Now his father, the late Cal Ripken Sr., the man who taught him how to play the game the right way, appeared on the screen. And down on the field, Cal Ripken Jr. was no longer watching but had his head down and his wife was holding his hand.
“Yeah,” he said later, “I found myself for the first time trying to harden myself so I wouldn’t bawl like a baby. The video, the presentation and the tribute were super-first class. It evoked certain feelings, certain emotions. Seeing my dad up there … I had to gather myself. It was quite moving.”
And so the M’s and their fans said goodbye to a man who set a work standard that will never be matched in major league baseball. Many in the everyday world don’t quite understand what the big deal is about a man playing in 2,632 consecutive baseball games and not missing a day of work in more than 16 years. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
Maybe you had to play the game to fully appreciate what Ripken did.
That is why Jamie Moyer, the M’s starting pitcher, did what he did Sunday. As Ripken came to the plate for the first time, with the crowd rising to give him an ovation, the classy left-hander stood behind the pitcher’s mound and tugged at the bill of his cap. It was just what it appeared to be: an act of respect.
“I knew he would get a big ovation,” Moyer said, “and this was my way of saying ‘This is your stage. Do what you want to do with it.’ It’s not like I could go up and shake his hand. The nicest thing I could do was tip my cap and get him out.”
And so he did: He tipped his cap and got him out on a fly ball. Then he got him out two more times, leaving Ripken hitless for the day and for the series.
Some contend Ripken, 41, should have quit years ago, but why? He was still putting up decent numbers and he still liked playing the game, probably more than anyone putting on a uniform. You can take the boy out of the game, but you can’t take the game out of the boy.
Some of the fun had dripped out of the game several years ago when he and teammate Ben McDonald came back out on the field after the O’s had played the M’s one night in the Kingdome. Ripken went to the mound and pitched batting practice for McDonald. Line drives were whistling past Ripken as he and the O’s pitcher cackled at their late-night antics.
“In baseball, you’re supposed to have fun,” Ripken said the other night, “and sometimes when you go through losing streaks or maybe you’re rebuilding and you’re not having as much fun as the Mariners are having right now. Sometimes you’ve just got to go out and go back to another time when you remember baseball being fun.”
And so, that’s what he and McDonald did that night. Two grown men making like kids back on the sandlot and having the time of their lives. They say that’s what Ripken has always been – just a kid at heart.
When he joined the Orioles in 1992, Mark McLemore remembered walking into the Orioles clubhouse and the first thing he saw was Ripken and another player flying across the room. Two big kids wrestling. “I’m thinking, ‘Streak. Streak,” McLemore said with a laugh. “But that was Cal. He liked to have fun.”
As the Mariners hurried to shower, dress and catch a plane to California after Sunday’s 6-0 win, some of the players took a few moments to try to put in perspective what Ripken has done in his career. He played the second most difficult position in the game, shortstop, for most of it, but he didn’t go on the disabled list for the first time until April 20, 1999.
Guess how many trips to the DL major league players made during Ripken’s 16-plus years of playing every day? A tidy 5,045.
And Ripken doesn’t even sprain an ankle. How does that happen? Bret Boone asked.
“I can play with anything, I know I can play with anything, but I sprained my ankle – bad – once in Montreal,” the plucky M’s second baseman said. “I woke up the next day and it was swollen and I wore cowboy boots to try to keep the swelling down. I went in and I said, ‘You tape this thing. I’m playing.’ I went out on the field, fell over trying to walk down the line and I started laughing at myself, thinking ‘What are you doing?’
“Cal’s been through all that. You tell me he doesn’t sprain his ankle? You can’t go out there with what I had, it’s impossible. If they’d said, ‘We’ll give you $20 million to play today,’ I couldn’t have played. It’s amazing what he’s done. He’s a special guy.”
A few feet away, 37-year-old Stan Javier, who has 15 years in the big leagues, couldn’t even begin to try to explain this freak of nature named Ripken.
“I can’t even understand it,” he said of the endurance the man has shown. “First, you’ve got to be so lucky. You can get the flu, you can catch a cold, you can miss the (team) plane, your wife can have a baby, you can sleep wrong and get up with a bad neck. So many things can happen off the field.”
Maybe, he said, it was just meant to be. “The guy’s a great player, he’s consistent, he never had to take a day off because he’s been a great performer. It’s not like he played the streak just to play it. He was performing and that’s the most important thing about Cal.”
Just as important was the class and the dignity he brought to the game.
And his respect for it.
We’ll never see the likes of him again.