Baseball's Mr. Reliable and the Virtues of Just Showing Up

ODD that in a baseball season in which the preoccupation has been the record home-run exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa we would be broadsided by an event of - dare we suggest - even greater import involving something that didn't happen.

It was that Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles didn't play on Sunday, Sept. 20.

Not since 1982 has there been an Orioles box score that didn't have a Ripken line. For 16 years spanning 2,632 consecutive games, through rain, heat, and night, he delivered. It's the all-time record - he surpassed in 1995 Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130, and then, for good measure, the all-planet mark of 2,215 by Japan's Sachio Kinugasa.

This is stunning beyond amazing. Consider that the next-longest streak in the game today is sported by Albert Belle of the White Sox, who is approaching 350. Or to put it in even better perspective, No. 3 on the all-time consecutive games list is Everett Scott with 1,307, playing for Boston and New York between 1916 and 1925.

The streak ended not with a bang or a whimper but with exquisite classy behavior. Ripken, who understood the occasional criticism that he continued playing during The Streak when a day off would have served better, simply walked into manager Ray Miller's office and said, "I think the time is right." Having opted out, he proceeded to relax, laugh, and enjoy the game.

He wasn't hurt and he wasn't tired and he had no personal business that demanded his attention. The time, simply, was right. Afterward, Ripken - who once in 1985 almost had to miss a game because of a sprained ankle and who nearly missed in 1993 because of a twisted knee - said, "I really believe that somebody else will come along and play more games, because if I can do it, somebody else definitely will."

It is hard, for the most part, for most of us to learn any lessons from professional athletes. After all, they're not like us, for which we are generally grateful. Increasingly, they have more behavioral problems than Freud could have analyzed even working nights and weekends.

Not so with Cal Ripken. What he taught us is how to be an exemplary employee. It was Woody Allen who pointed out correctly, "Ninety percent of life is showing up." Ripken personified this truism. It also helps to be on time and showered, but, just showing up is the heart of the deal. It's not very complicated, but millions of employees around the world make it so.

Can you imagine Ripken grousing about shift-differential pay? Coffee-break duration? Days off?

Lost in the hosannas is not just that Ripken achieved perfect attendance but that his performance, mostly as a short-stop, recently as a third baseman, has been star-marked. He has been in 16 straight All-Star games; twice he was the American League MVP.

Yet the true beauty of Ripken's achievement is in its longevity. The McGwire-Sosa homer extravaganza is great fun. But it is transpiring over a brief moment in time. It's good to do something in the short term - one baseball season would be a good example - but to sustain something over 16 baseball seasons is the fodder of majestic performance.

Perseverance seems too often to be a lost art these days. Instant gratification is the insistence. It's because we have been inundated by 30-minute sitcoms and eight-second sound bites. Knowing that Shakespeare wrote, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" doesn't necessarily demonstrate a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare. It takes time to know Shakespeare.

Doing anything right takes time. The newsboy throwing the paper on the porch once proves nothing; 1,000 times proves a lot.

Cal Ripken Jr. proves a lot. He proves that the work ethic is alive and well. Just show up and do your best. Every day. Life is a simple thing.

* Douglas S. Looney's email address is looneyd@csps.com

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