Cal Ripken: The Steroid Savior?

Columns — By on May 20, 2009 1:03 pm

Buster Olney blogs that Cal Ripken can help bring change to the steroid issues in baseball. The nut($):

Cal Ripken answered a question last week from an audience related to the issue of steroids and Alex Rodriguez, and it was in that context in which he gave this interesting answer: “I really want to know why [Rodriguez used steroids],” Ripken said at the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County’s Men’s Night Out banquet Thursday. “I’m going to make it my business to find out,” he said.

There’s more context needed on that answer about Rodriguez. Ripken also said it might take him years to get such an answer. So to be clear: Ripken is not jumping on a plane and planting himself in front of A-Rod’s locker like some reporter on stakeout, demanding to have his questions addressed. He’s just curious.

And because he is, it’s interesting to think about what a difference Ripken could make if he were to devote himself to the issue of helping to clean up baseball. The Iron Man on a Mission.

There is nobody within the umbrella of major league baseball, other than active stars like Derek Jeter or CC Sabathia, who could be a greater vehicle for change than Ripken. He’s like baseball’s version of a holy leader, because his words will always be viewed as being rooted in integrity. Playing every single game for about a decade and a half will do that for you. Ripken became an American icon when he broke Lou Gehrig‘s consecutive-game record in 1995, and probably had more power at that point in his career than any player in the history of the game.

But he has never been one to flex his political muscle on larger issues. During the 1994-95 strike, for example, there were members of the Players Association who felt that Ripken should have been more outspoken on behalf of the brethren. It’s hard to imagine him ever taking on a personal slash-and-burn campaign aimed at alleged users; in other words, he’ll never be the clean version of Jose Canseco, naming names and calling out the power brokers. It would not be his way to call out peers like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.

But Ripken wouldn’t have to do so to effect change. Some well-aimed speeches and appearances would do the trick, and if he needs a reason close to home to justify that kind of commitment, how about this: Ripken Baseball? He has extensive ties to youth baseball, and this could provide the platform and the motivation for him; if he spoke out about performance-enhancing drugs, he’d be speaking directly to the kids who play in the tournaments and leagues to which he has lent his name.

One day in my youth, my father and I went to Yankee Stadium, something we did probably a hundred times.  We always got there early for batting practice, usually earlier because the Cross Bronx and the Major Deagan can be a major pain.  As usual, we were floating around outside the main gates, waiting for the ticket booths to open because, in the eighties, you could walk up and get yourself a good pair of tickets, especially if you greased the elderly gentleman with the lock box.

On this day, boredom brought us over towards the players enterance.  After seeing a few random people walk in, up strode Cal Ripken, Jr.  People flocked towards him, because in those days, you actually could get somewhat around the players as they approached rather than being cordoned off fifty yards away.  There must have been about twenty-five people around him, including myself, and he signed for each and every person.  When he finally got to me, I was unprepared and had nothing to sign, so he shook my hand and went inside.

I always appreciated that about Ripken.  He could have walked away, just waving nicely to the fans, but Ripken understood what impact he could have on those kids.  Five minutes of his time turned into a story I still remember twenty plus years later.  It may not be the most important tale ever told, but he left his mark on me and countless other people.

Then I started to grow up and so did my cynicism.  I still have a lot of respect for Ripken as a ballplayer and as a person, for the most part.  And I think Olney is right in the sense that Cal could help make some difference regarding the steroid issues surrounding the game.

But as far as Ripken having instant integrity because of his consecutive games played record… Well, the other part of my childhood remembrance of Ripken should be noted: Ripken didn’t show up on the team bus with the rest of the team.  As a matter of fact, Ripken never took the team bus with the rest of the team.  Cal was known in his superstar years in Baltimore as someone who knew he was a superstar.  I’ve even heard unsubstantiated rumblings about Cal away from the field that the press had dared not report.

That shouldn’t be enough to indict someone, but also consider this: Ripken’s consecutive game streak, while a marvelous feat, was very much a selfish feat.  Baseball is the rare game where a player can  pursue individual greatness and cause little harm to the rest of the team.  There are few situations where a player padding their own stats in baseball can come to the detriment of another player or his teammates.

Consider Barry Bonds, whose tremendous production, despite what you think of him, kept the Giants afloat his last few seasons.  Consider a pitcher pursuing a strikeout record or a complete game shutout.  Consider a batter going for the triple crown.  It’s possible that a pitcher may pitch a bit beyond their effectiveness, but that’s for the manager to decide.

The consecutive games streak is a different animal, though.  Cal was thirty-eight years old when the streak ended.  Thirty-eight isn’t exactly ancient history in baseball anymore, but for a converted shortstop, it’s up there.  And despite a rather flukishly productive season at thirty-eight in 1999 (albeit in only 86 games), Cal had proven in five of the last seven seasons that he wasn’t a league average hitter.  Those five seasons were at the end of his streak.

The Orioles weren’t a bad team in the mid-1990s.  They made the playoffs in 1996 and 1997.  Their other seasons at that time were so far off that it’s doubtful an effective Ripken would have made the difference.

But what if he could have?  What if the Orioles hadn’t played five losses below their pythagorean record in 1998?  That would have put them more in the hunt for the wild card.  Maybe they would have pursued more than Juan Guzman at the trading deadline.  Who knows?

The point is, Ripken insisted on playing every day, despite the fact that offensively he was deteriorating and defensively he wasn’t that great.  It wasn’t about fielding the best team, it was fielding Cal Ripken Jr. so that he could break a record.  You have to assume that Cal played through numerous injuries during his time, especially as he got older.

You also have to assume, being the late 1990s and playing alongside Brady Anderson and his 50 home run 1996 campaign, that Cal likely saw his share of steroids while he was going through his streak.  Wouldn’t it have been heroic if Cal had made his statements then, when nobody was talking about steroids?  Wouldn’t it have been incredible if the Iron Man, in the midst of breaking an unthinkable record and seemingly beyond suspicion regarding steroids, had come out and said on the day he broke the record, “baseball has a problem with steroids?”

That would have been incredible.  That would have been integrity.  But baseball didn’t want to hear it then.  Not after the strike shortened 1994 season.  And Cal didn’t want to say it then, either.  He had worked too hard and too long to cast a pall over the game when his heroic streak was about to reinvigorate not only the sport, but his wallet as well.

No, it’s much easier to let time pass, to drift into retirement, make your speech at the Hall of Fame, and let the dust settle on the Mitchell Report.  It’s better to wait for the majority of the histrionics to subside and wait for another great shortstop to get caught before you decide to finally throw your hat into the ring.  It’s safer for Ripken to get involved now.  The player’s union has already ceded some of their leverage, not because of player’s demands, but because of the public and the government.  Now that everyone else has done the heavy lifting, there’s nothing left for Cal to risk by being outspoken against steroids.

I don’t doubt that he can do some good, especially with the youth of America.  I just think he could have done a lot more ten years ago.

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8 Comments

  1. SHTig says:

    Cal Ripken broke the consecutive games streak in 1995, so his playing in 1997 and 1998 can’t be strongly argued as him doing it for the streak.

    Maybe Cal was on steroids too? http://www.truthfromfacts.com/2009/04/13/cal-ripken-and-steroids/

    • Scott Ham says:

      The continuation of the streak after breaking the record prevented him from taking off-days. At his age, he probably could have benefitted from the rest but the streak came first.

      Can’t look at the link right now but I’ll check it later.

  2. Brian H says:

    Steriods, Scott Boras and the Yankees ruined baseball

    • Scott Ham says:

      I agree the Yankees spending hasn’t always been in baseball’s best interests. But where has it gotten them the last eight years? It hasn’t bought a championship. The late 90′s teams weren’t the money juggernaut that they have been lately.

  3. Bing says:

    Yeah, Ok Scott. What do you say now? I quit watching baseball for 3 reasons, Cal retired, steroids, and the Yank Mes buying their championships.

    SHTig, I’ve seen you post this link at several sites. Get over it, quit trying to start crap! Look at Cal, where’s the steroid body? Give me a break. He is the most honorable player the game ever saw!

  4. Bing says:

    Thanks Mark, you just pulled baseball down a little further. I just burnt your rookie card.

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