Hadley: Iron Man’s record will never rust
Greg Hadley | Thursday, October 30, 2014
In sports, it’s easy to be blown away by a single moment of brilliance. Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes, Antonio Cromartie’s 109-yard touchdown return and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. All of these are incredible feats that may very well never be equaled.
But to me, the most impressive records aren’t the ones set in a single game or race. A perfect game in baseball is impressive to be sure, but sometimes a mediocre player gets lucky, and history happens. I’m looking at you, Dallas Braden.
The point is that the most unbreakable records take years to accomplish, as a truly great player consistently produces again and again, separating himself from the statistical outliers, the one-year wonders and the flashes in the pan.
That’s why no one will ever top Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played streak.
There’s simply no one in baseball that can match Ripken’s talent, toughness and longevity. In 2014, only four players in the MLB played every game, but Ripken did it for 17 seasons, patrolling the left side of the infield for Baltimore.
In fact, Ripken stands more than 500 games ahead of his closest competitor, the legendary Lou Gehrig. And after Gehrig, the next-longest streak, set by Everett Scott, is 1,307 games, and Scott’s streak ended in 1925. Think about that. Scott played in an era when most players were famously tough when dealing with doubleheaders and injuries, and Ripken doubled his best effort. Since Cal’s retirement, the longest streak has been 1,152 games, and that ended eight years ago.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s consider what it would take for a player to actually surpass the Iron Man.
First of all, this hypothetical player would have to be incredibly talented. Ripken revolutionized the shortstop position by combining slick fielding with a powerful bat.
He won two Gold Gloves, set a then-MLB record for consecutive games without an error at shortstop and posted one of the best fielding percentages of any shortstop ever at .979. That’s even better than Ozzie Smith, who won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves.
At the plate, Ripken was one of just eight players in baseball history to collect 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. He also hit more than 600 doubles, good for top 15 all-time.
Ripken was just too good to take out of the lineup.
By comparison, of all the players who ranked in the top 10 in the MLB this year for batting average, on-base percentage, home runs, RBIs and hits, only one played the full 162 games. That would be the San Francisco Giants’ Hunter Pence, who probably won’t have the same level of production a decade from now.
But our hypothetical iron man wouldn’t just have to be good — he would have to be tough to play 162 games a year for nearly two decades. Mike Trout might be the best baseball player on the planet, but even he had to take off five games in each of the past two seasons. Miguel Cabrera won a Triple Crown in 2012, but he has also never played a full season. Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros’ brightest young star, took home this year’s batting title at the tender age of 24, but if he wants to catch Cal, the speedster would have to start playing every day from now until he’s almost 42.
And of course, in his twilight years, Ripken benefited from playing for a team that was never in a pennant chase. To be fair, Ripken never posted a negative Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score during the streak, but there is no doubt that towards the end, the legend had slowed down. However, the Orioles, stuck below .500, had no incentive to disrupt the most positive defining aspect of the team.
Nowadays, a player as good as Ripken would never stay with the same team for 21 seasons. Derek Jeter was probably the last player to be so closely connected with a franchise. Today, superstars inevitably accept exorbitant contracts in free agency, only to see their skills fade and managers put them on the bench. At the very least, there’s a slump as a player adjusts to a new team. I’m looking at you, Albert Pujols.
There is certainly a bit of irony in declaring Cal’s record unbreakable. After all, Gehrig’s mark was once considered sacred by baseball experts. But baseball has evolved, both as a sport and as a business, and it is just not profitable to play someone every day of the long, slow season, only to exhaust them for the playoffs.
The very best records take once-in-a-generation talent, peerless longevity and most of all, a little luck. The stars aligned for Cal Ripken Jr. in a way we’ll never see them do again.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.