If a baseball season is played this year, it will start under unusual circumstances, but it would hardly be the first time that has happened. Most recently, the 1995 season started in late April after a months-long work stoppage wiped out the 1994 World Series and threatened to derail Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games played streak.
Twenty-five years later, Major League Baseball is shut down due to the coronavirus, and a timetable to get back to action is unclear. MLB is reportedly considering multiple scenarios to get the 2020 season underway, including playing entirely in Arizona and playing at spring training sites in Arizona and Florida.
If a similar situation were to have come up during his consecutive games streak, would Ripken have wanted to play a season in such an unusual way? The short answer, according to Ripken, is yes.
“There are challenges in any plan that’s going to happen now. We’re in an area that we’ve never been before and we’re trying to figure it out,” Ripken said on Glenn Clark Radio April 14. “So my analytical mind would say, ‘God, what are all the hurdles? What are all the challenges that you have to meet in order to have a season?’
“But then I started thinking about what baseball means to me, what it means to everybody else in the country. I want some sort of product, anything. And I appreciate the commissioner trying to figure out, ‘How can we save baseball? How can we keep baseball out there?’ I think it does and will play a role in the normalcy of everyday lives for people.”
That’s a different answer than the one he had regarding the spring of 1995, when replacement players were signed by teams to populate spring training camps with the MLB Players Association still on strike. (Orioles owner Peter Angelos was the only owner not to sign any replacement players.)
The players and owners eventually came to an agreement one day before the season was set the start with replacement players. At the time of the strike, Ripken was 122 games shy of breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record (2,130). Should replacement players have been used, his streak would’ve ended at 2,009 consecutive games. Ripken says he would never have considered playing with replacement players to keep his streak alive.
“There’s a sense of right or wrong and what you should do and what you should not do,” Ripken said. “If that’s the way the streak was going to end, then that’s the way it was going to end. And if you look at that as a test, how important was the streak to you, Cal? It didn’t bother me one bit. I had no reservations about saying, ‘I’m not doing it.’”
As it turned out, Ripken breaking Gehrig’s record in 1995 ended up helping baseball recapture its fan base after the work stoppage. The record-tying and record-breaking games against the California Angels were magical nights at Camden Yards, with Ripken going deep in each contest and circling the warning track once the record-breaker became an official game after the top of the fifth inning. Ripken’s streak ended at 2,632 consecutive games in September 1998.
The longest active consecutive games streak belongs to Kansas City Royals second baseman and outfielder Whit Merrifield at 247. Ripken sent a message to Merrifield via Twitter, and though the record is unlikely to ever be broken, Ripken would be fine with passing it along to a new owner.
“I don’t see myself as saying, ‘I want to own this forever.’ I don’t know why. I’m not territorial about it. I didn’t feel like I was replacing Lou Gehrig in a way,” Ripken said. “It’s a principle, it’s a value, it’s an approach. It has changed a little bit in the big leagues now where the everyday player is defined differently. Maybe it’s, ‘We want to get the best 150 games or 145 games out of him. We want to give him selective rest so we can get the best out of those players.’ To me, being an everyday player was for your team to count on you every day, literally.”
Ripken said the way the Orioles finished the 1982 season taught him the importance of every single game early in his career. The Orioles and Brewers, tied in the AL East at 94-67, played each other in the final game of the regular season in 1982, with the winner securing the division title and advancing to the ALCS. The Brewers won, 10-2, with Robin Yount hitting two homers. After the game, Ripken said he and his teammates thought back to all the games during the summer that could have made the difference in the end.
But it was watching Eddie Murray work day in and day out that left the biggest impression on a young Ripken. Murray played the first 12 seasons of his career in Baltimore, crafting a track record of durability, reliability and productivity. From 1997-1988, Murray hit .295/.371/.500 with 333 homers and played 150 or more games in 10 of those seasons. (He played 99 games in strike-shortened 1981.)
“It was Eddie Murray that was the example sitting right in front of you that, ‘Uh huh, you’ve got to be out there,’” Ripken said. “He plays 15 innings in Boston and it ends really late, and we eat and go to bed late. And then you’ve got to turn around for an 11 o’clock game during the Boston Marathon time and Roger Clemens happens to be pitching. I was 0-for-5 the night before and you’re thinking, ‘OK, it’d be really easy to miss this game.’ But you push yourself in there and you get the hit that puts your team ahead and you beat Roger Clemens.”
It’s that desire to play that would encourage Ripken to play this year, even under unusual circumstances. Reported plans for regular-season games in Arizona and Florida would feature precautionary measures including players being isolated away from the park, limited travel and no fans in the stands. Ripken says he’d be OK with accepting the fact that if players want to play, this year will have to be different.
“I applaud the efforts, not that it’s going to be easy and you’re going to have to jump through a lot of hoops and figure out a lot of hurdles to get over to do it,” Ripken said, “but I like the idea that they’re trying to save it and not just saying, ‘OK, we’ll start again next year.’”
Ripken touched on several other topics, including …
On rewatching ESPN’s 2131 broadcast and being surprised about what former manager Earl Weaver said in an interview regarding his decision to move Ripken from third base to shortstop in 1982:
“The way I remember it is I came in for the game that day, I looked at the lineup card, I was in the lineup and there was a ‘6’ next to my name instead of the customary ‘5.’ I just thought, ‘Hmm. Maybe he made a mistake in the numbers.’ And then Len Sakata came up to me and said, ‘No, you’re playing shortstop tonight.’ So nobody had said anything to me to that point, and I hadn’t taken any ground balls or moved over to shortstop at all.
“And then Earl called me into the office and gave me a little bit of a talk. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m putting you at short tonight. If the ball is hit to you, I want you to catch it, then I want you to get a good grip on the ball, I want you to take your time and make a good throw to first base. If he’s safe, that’s OK. He’s only on first. He’s not on second.’ It was sort of a weird piece of advice.
“But what stood out to me in that interview that night that I didn’t know was, ‘I didn’t want to mess the kid up, and I was just trying to get through the weekend.’ So in his mind he was thinking of it as maybe a temporary move just to bolster the offense, do something new for that moment, which is consistent with his actions. He didn’t say, ‘Well, I’m going to move you over there.’ But I laugh because that temporary move, the way he presented it, lasted 15 straight years.”
On his first day at shortstop (July 1, 1982 in Detroit):
“Rich Dauer was the second baseman. Now keep in mind, because you need context, I’m 21 years old. I go over to shortstop … and so I looked for his leadership — eight or nine years in the big leagues already. I said, ‘OK, what signs are you giving for steal coverages and those kinds of things? You’re going to be giving those, right?’ And he goes, ‘No. That’s all on you.’ So I assumed the responsibility up the middle from the minute I went over there.”
On exchanging jerseys with Lamar Jackson:
“Around Christmastime I made a request out for my jersey for his, and he did that really quickly so I was happy about that. It helped me for a Christmas present. The thing that I admire from a distance, which I think a lot of people do, is that he’s a really humble guy. He’s a super talented guy. We all kind of cringe a little bit when he tries to get the extra yard and turns the ball upfield as opposed to running out of bounds sometimes, but he is fun to watch. But I love how he handles the adversity. I love how he handles the questions. He’s honest, he’s humble. He’s easy to like.”
To hear more from Ripken, including about his foundation’s efforts to strike out hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles