20 years ago today Cal Ripken Jr. helped to reenergize baseball, by doing what he did best, showing up for work. The Iran Man’s chase of the Iron Horse resonated with fans who had lost faith in the game during the 1994 Players Strike. Ripken was not performing a superhuman feat, he was simply doing his job like the fans who fill the seats at every Major League Baseball stadium during every game of the season. Ripken brought baseball and the fans back together.
The 1994 Players Strike was generally about money. The argument was between the owners and players, millionaire owners fighting against players who were millionaires or who could become millionaires. This in fighting did not sit well with the fans who were seeing the cost of attending a game continue to rise, and who felt the rising prices were slowly pushing them away from the game. The Major League Baseball Players Association wanted a larger piece of the financial pie the game generated, and the owners did not want to share. Not getting lost in the argument, the disagreement and the lack of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement led to the players going out on strike on August 11, 1994. The strike would last 232 days, finally ending on April 2, 1995. The 1994 season ended without the completion of the full 162 game schedule. There were no playoffs, there was no World Series, there was no parade for a World Series champion. The 1994 season never concluded, it only stopped.
Baseball fans were angry. The game had seemingly forgotten its roots; it was no longer a game but a business. While the financial and business issues were resolved, the damage done to the game seemed to have forever changed the game, and not for the better. Baseball had angered the people it depended on for its very existence, the fans. Repairing the damage inflicted from the Strike looked as though it could take years or even a generation to repair, if it was ever going to be able to be repaired. However, baseball was able to repair some of the damage and reengage the fans thanks to what started on May 30, 1982.
On Sunday May 30, 1982 the Baltimore Orioles lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore before a paid attendance of 21,632. The Orioles collected only one hit that day, a fifth inning single to left by catcher Rick Dempsey. Batting 8th, behind Dempsey was third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken went 0 for 2 with a walk. This otherwise forgettable game was game 1 of 2,632 consecutive that Ripken would play.
Fast forward more than 2,000 games and the start of the delayed 1995 Major League season. Every day Ripken grew closer to the magical 2,130 consecutive games played record set by Hall of Fame player Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was pure baseball. He was a great hitter, a great slugger, and a gracious man. When ALS took away his gift to play the game he did not make a public scene about how bad his luck was, he did not he draw attention to himself. The media speculation swirled about what was wrong with Gehrig, but he never took part in the circus. Instead, he quietly and with dignity stepped aside so as to not hurt the team. When the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939 the dignity and grace with which Gehrig carried himself was on full display. Addressing the sold out crowd, Gehrig spoke of the people who he was lucky to know, his family, and how lucky he was. Lou Gehrig was more than a ball player; he was a man, he was class, he was grace.
Class. Dignity. Grace. These were the qualities baseball needed in 1995. These are the qualities Cal Ripken Jr. put on display every day. Baseball observers and fans can appreciate a player who is chasing .400, chasing Dimaggio’s 56 game hit streak, chasing the multitude of records that elevate a player above his contemporaries and places him among the greats. While these pursuits are great, they were not the pursuit that would galvanize people to return to baseball in 1995. Baseball needed someone and something the people watching in the stadium, on television, or listening on the radio could relate to. They could all relate to the consecutive game streak.
Those of use that have not been blessed with the athletic gifts necessary to play sports on the highest level do not have off seasons. Every morning we wake up and go to work. We put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and then we do it all over again tomorrow. This is the rhythm of life. It is a grind, you show up and work at it. You may not be the best, you may be a compiler. Every day working on your craft, getting a little closer to your potential, even if that potential does not place you among the elites of your chosen field. Cal Ripken Jr. is not the greatest baseball player to take the field. He was an excellent player and a compiler. He had flaws in his game, but he showed up everyday and worked at correcting those flaws. Simply showing up for work resonated with people, they could relate with Ripken and felt he understood what it was like for them to show up to work when they did not feel well or when they had the aches and pains that go along with life. Ripken reminded people why baseball mattered to them personally again. He helped to bridge the gap and overcome the anger and animosity that grew out of the Strike.
September 6, 1995 marked the 2,131st game the Baltimore Orioles had played since that Sunday afternoon in 1982. Cal Ripken Jr. had come to work sick, injured, healthy, stressed, happy, and sad but most of all he had shown up to work every day and had done his job. On a Wednesday night in Baltimore at Camden Yards, the Iron Man pass the Iron Horse. The Orioles won 4-2 over the California Angels and Ripken went 2 for 4 with a solo home run that night, but it did not matter. What mattered was the joy in the stadium, the joy in seeing a player achieve something that had no short cut, no dollar sign, no superhuman feat. Simply Cal Ripken Jr. showed up to work, again.
The memories from the night are plenty. The standing ovation for Ripken that seemed to last forever. The announcers on television understanding that words were not necessary. The Orioles players pushing a reluctant, and almost embarrassed Ripken out of the dugout to take a victory lap around the field. Everyone, fans, umpires, opposing players, and teammates applauding Ripken’s accomplishment. Cal Ripken Jr. helped to save the game of baseball that September night. He showed baseball fans that the game had not been ruined by the money and the business, it still was a children’s game played by adults. He showed the players and owners that the game does not belong to them, it belongs to the fans.
Baseball and life are a grind. You show up every day working towards a perfection that is impossible to reach. You show up because it is your job to put in an honest days work to receive and honest days pay. Cal Ripken Jr. saved the game of baseball by reminded all of us this 20 years ago.