September 8, 2011
Remembering Ripken and "Unassailable" Records
Wednesday night marked the 16th anniversary of Cal Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game. When the Angels/Orioles game that night reached the fifth inning - thereby making it an official contest - the season-long (or decades-long) chase was finally over and Ripken and his Baltimore fans could celebrate the breaking of a record that, for half a century, everyone thought was unbreakable. Ripken marked the day with a pair of hits, including a fourth-inning home run off of Shawn Boskie, and a lap around Camden Yards. It was a special moment for the damaged sport.
But the moment was far from certain-to-happen, even only a few months before. Sure, Ripken had managed to play in over 2,000 straight games over the last 16 years, but that didn't mean that he would make it through the summer unscathed. A bad ankle twist, an awkward dive - any number of things could have happened to the big shortstop that year to kill the streak before it became immortal. With this uncertainty in mind, and in anticipation of the September event, Orange County Register writer Larry Bortstein wrote a 1995 piece for Baseball Digest wondering what records would never be broken.
The standard answers are given - Cy Young's win total, Ty Cobb's career batting average, Nolan Ryan's strikeout total - but there's a lot more skepticism than you might imagine. Pete Rose, for example, is quoted as saying that most lifetime records will stand because "no teams are going to be willing to pay players big money long enough for them to beat those records". Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi shared Rose's skepticism, saying that players had no incentive to stay around for 20 years since they were getting paid so much (I guess it never occurred to Bavasi that players would *want* to stick around to make even more money).
Rose had different opinions on single-season records, though. With the "paucity of pitching" in mid-90s baseball, Rose could see Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak fall, as well as Roger Maris's 61 home runs and Hack Wilson's 190 RBIs. Nolan Ryan had similar views regarding his record career strikeout total and his record single-season strikeout total.
The most amazing thing about Bortstein's article is how it seems to marginalize (or worse) Ripken's attempt at the record - in two different parts! Bavasi is quoted as saying that he'd "rather not see Gehrig's record broken" though he does realize that "what Ripken is trying to do may be good for baseball..." The harsher words come from Hall of Famer Joe Morgan:
"I don't think a lot of other players are taking Ripken's consecutive games too seriously. If you can just will yourself to play every day, that's not as big an achievement as Pete's hits or Aaron's homers. Sometimes a player actually helps his team more when he takes a day off here and there."
Morgan's quotes are further strengthened with an anecdote from Bob Lemon. Lemon finishes his story by saying: "Only a horrible disease ended [Gehrig's] streak. If it wasn't for that, he might still be playing today."
Maybe I'm making too big of a deal out of a couple of quotes 15 years later, but those seemed like rather odd remark to include in an article about Ripken's quest for the consecutive games title. It feels like Bortstein is interjecting a personal opinion with those quotes, but, again, it could be nothing.
As for the rest of the piece, I find it hard to argue with any of the "unassailable" records. Cobb, Young, Hornsby, Ryan, Rickey, the Wilsons... they're all safe for a long time to come. Stolen bases, batting average, pitcher wins, triples - they're all parts of the game that have changed too much for modern-day players to really have a chance at competing with decades- (or century-) old players. Are there any other records that Bortstein or I missed? What records are out there just waiting to be broken that we're ignoring? The record-book may have changed a lot over the last 10- or 15-years, but that doesn't mean that every record will be re-written.