Will Cal Ripken Jr.'s Record Ever Be Broken?
It's a simple question: Will Cal Ripken Jr.'s record for consecutive games played ever be broken? It's one of those great "baseball" questions that will likely be asked until it gets broken; if it ever gets broken. How many times have people asked about Joe DiMaggio's consecutive game hitting streak, or (now) Barry Bonds' career home run record, or Johnny Vander Meer's record two consecutive no-hitters? But it is Ripken's "streak" that is the most interesting.
There have been certain numbers that baseball fans grew up with memorized. There was Babe Ruth's 715 career home runs, surpassed by Hank Aaron's 755. Both numbers were drilled into baseball fans' brains like high school geometry. There was Denny McLain's 31 wins in 1968. There was Ty Cobb's 4,191 career hits (eventually surpassed by Pete Rose). And there was Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played.
When Ripken Iron Man Streak tied and beat Gehrig's Iron Horse Streak in 1995, it was national news at a time when the game needed it most. The game was recovering from the 1994 strike and World Series cancellation. The Orioles were a competitive team playing in a new stadium. He was a good looking guy who was breaking a record built upon endurance, dedication and a solid, American work ethic. Nobody knew it was The Steroid Era, not yet. Because of Ripken's All-American image, anyone could relate to him and support him.
But could the record be broken today?
Think about this: It took Gehrig over 13 seasons to set the old record. Ripken's new record of 2,632 consecutive games took 17 years (just over 16 full 162-game seasons) to set. How many players are active in the Major Leagues for most of 17 seasons? Not too many.
Take a step back. To be active for 17 seasons, it means you have to be good. It means your skills must improve enough and then hold steady enough that your manager and general manager don't acquire a replacement for you. It means you need to be healthy in more ways than just being a guy who doesn't contract the swine flu. It means you can't tweak or pull a muscle, be overcome by back spasms or a sprained ankle. It means you can play through any aches, breaks or migraines well enough to warrant still being written into the lineup.
It means you are so good for 17+ seasons that you are helping the team win. What's more important, a streak or getting to the playoffs? Breaking Ripken's record means your team can overcome you being the weakest link. Or it means you still get the job done better than a potential replacement. When Ripken voluntarily ended his streak at the end of the '98 season, his offensive numbers were still respectable. He was no longer a superstar, but he could still hit - he only hit less than 14 home runs in only one season during the 16 that he was immersed in his streak, and that was 4 years before it was over.
Breaking the record means your personal life comes in a distant second place. If your wife is about to give birth in the third inning, you give her a call from the dugout. If your mother dies, the funeral is held on an off day or you give your dad a call from the dugout. It means if your child is sick you stay away so that you don't get it. It means you are playing for you, not anyone else.
Say you're a guy who can fulfill all of those requirements. Great. But there's more. If it's you, can you handle the media scrutiny? Ripken broke the record 15 years ago. The media - both baseball and non-baseball - have evolved incrementally since then. Can you handle the invasion into your privacy, the constant posting of your photos during private times on Facebook pages and blogs? Can you ignore Deadspin's snarkiness or the New York Post's relentlessness when inevitably some person comes out and accuses you of something? Do you have the ability to ignore all of this, even as these entities encroach on your family's life too? Do you enjoy being the victim of countless stalkers, some who are paid to do it and some who are just a little bit crazy?
What about the fans, not just the crazy ones? Inevitably, your skills are going to erode. Are you sure you want to be the #1 topic among fans as the team goes into a tailspin and you go hitless in 6 games, making a few errors along the way? Can you handle fans, media, teammates, management questioning you if you still have the ability to play every day?
On top of all of this, you need to get enough sleep and get enough mental breaks so that you can keep up the internal motivation to play another day. You need to be aware that, at some point, there is a point of no return. This is the point where you say you're going to go for it; that missing a game, or a few, would be something you would regret for the rest of your life. When is that? Is it at 810 games? That's 5 seasons (still 11 away from the record). Is it at 1,296 games? That's 8 seasons (still 8 away from the record). At what point do you decide to make the commitment to put the rest of your life on hold so that you can go for the record? And if you don't reach it, if you fall 500 games short, does your family ever forgive you for all that you missed, even if they said they supported you through it all?
Of course, we haven't spoken about your agent, who's trying to balance your streak and your skills to obtain for you the highest paying contract. Is there a point where he says a few days off is worth more to you as a player, monetarily now and over the long haul, than playing every game and suffering a decline in numbers due to physical and mental fatigue? Or does he argue that you must continue the streak longer than you want because of the endorsement dollars that are still coming in. Don't think that he doesn't have any say on your plans.
Finally, there's the topic of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). If we agree there is a point of no return and you elect to pursue the record, does that mean you do whatever it takes to break it? Do you allow yourself to take some HgH when your body is healing slowly? Do you take PEDs because your swing is slower or less powerful and you need it to regain that zip it's been missing out of fear your manager will be forced to write you out of the lineup because his job performance is based upon the team's wins and losses, not how many games in a row you play? Are you willing to risk getting caught, either directly through testing or indirectly because somebody who knows the truth leaks it? Are you willing to possibly lose the good image you've created over all of those years in order to keep the streak alive, ironically blowing your image when whispers start to creep into the mainstream that you had a little illegal help?
It's complicated to break a record like Ripken's. It took a very special man to set the old record and took a very special man to set the new record. Is there a player out there today, maybe in single-A ball, who's gearing up for this? Is it possible that the pressures of the new century make it impossible for Ripken's Iron Man Streak to ever be broken? In our lifetimes, we may never know.