Cal Ripken announced his retirement Monday, and the Washington Post began its hagiography like this: “Leave it to Ripken to exit as appropriately, with a perfect sense of his sport and his place within it, as any athlete possibly could.” Presumably the writer, Thomas Boswell, defines “appropriate” retirement as one that is handed, as Ripken’s was, as an exclusive to the Post’s sports writers. Conveniently omitting some of the Iron Man’s worst moments, the Post lifts Ripken off the diamond and into the realm of secular sainthood. The canonization of St. Cal isn’t journalism, even by the rah-rah standards of the hometown press. It’s the sanitized biography of a man who was selfish, aloof, and at times phenomenally shallow.
Boswell admits the Iron Man could be “a little moody” in the years before he broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. (He doesn’t mention that this period spanned 14 seasons.) But as Ripken approached the record, Boswell assures, he became a changed man: “No one grasps the game better. … Its codes, its traditions, its legacies.”
Yet in 1995, Ripken showed little regard for baseball history, admitting to reporters that he knew virtually nothing about the man whose record he was about to break. And the history is particularly poignant. When Gehrig’s own streak came to an end, he was in the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and he was dying. Contrast Ripken with Mark McGwire, who rushed to the stands and embraced Roger Maris’ family members after hitting his 62nd home run in 1998.
So, Ripken didn’t show much respect for a dead man. How did he treat the living? The Post’s William Gildea writes, “Ripken took as much responsibility for goodwill as he could, repeatedly displaying attentiveness to fans with autographs and handshakes at every opportunity.” But Gildea never lets on that Ripken rarely showed such affection for his teammates. In 1993, Ripken eschewed the team bus for a private limousine. When the Orioles traveled to away games, he often preferred to stay at a separate hotel. The Orioles’ disastrous signing of outfielder Albert Belle in 1998 was brought on because the team needed a star, General Manager Frank Wren explained, with “more passion, more fire.”
Not content with reconstructing Ripken’s character, the Post plugs Ripken’s name into the same sentence with other (far superior) baseball legends. “He views his two decades with the Orioles,” Gildea writes, “much as Ted Williams did his seasons with the Red Sox. On his departure in 1960, Williams said: ‘My stay in Boston has been the most wonderful thing in my life.’ ” Here Gildea shows only a slightly better sense of baseball history than Ripken. Williams loathed his later years in Boston, loathed the fans, Red Sox management, and especially the press.
Ripken isn’t Ted Williams, on or off the field. He was a good but not transcendent hitter. He wasn’t a jerk, but he was no more or less selfish, aloof, and shallow than 95 percent of the players in the major leagues. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he falls somewhere in the middle rungs of baseball’s greatest players. It’s appropriate that we remember him that way.