- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2015

Sunday will mark the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak for consecutive games played. On Sept., 6, 1995, Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive game. He went on to play three more seasons, hiking the record to 2,632. There is no active player remotely close to an equivalent streak. The Washington Times chatted with Ripken about The Streak, his glove, and youth baseball, the latter of which he is heavily involved in.

Question: In a game with such long seasons and a vast amount of repetition that is played by the superstitious, you were not afraid to alter your stance. Why?
Answer: I guess I wasn’t superstitious. The stance is something to kick in something you do naturally. The stance is a starting point. Most people think that I just arbitrarily changed my stance from at-bat to at-bat, but when things weren’t happening and you weren’t driving the ball, you were pulling off the ball, for example, I would have a counter to that in batting practice. So, if I was pulling off really bad, the counter to that would be close up a lot so you could stop yourself from flying open. All of a sudden in batting practice, it would click. The ball would jump off the bat, and I would have backspin to it. So, I would take that into the game. Or, if you were lunging or out in front too much, spreading out and waiting for the ball to get there was the counter to those things. To me, it was trial-and-error in BP, and when I felt it in BP, then I used it. I just didn’t change my stance from at-bat to at-bat just for fun.

Q: One thing that seems to not be as discussed much is your fielding. What did you rely upon to be such an efficient shortstop?
A: I took great pride in my defense. In my era, you think of Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel. I was able to have as much success or more success at the position in a totally different body. I was almost 6-5 and 225; I think Ozzie was about 5-6 or 5-7 and about a buck-fifty. Omar Vizquel was small, too, but they could use their legs and get around the ball and move really quickly and corner. I had to take different angles to the ball. I had to position myself and anticipate a little bit more and remember. But, in the end, we still had to cover the same territory at shortstop. I was really proud when I broke the American League assists record. I was really proud when I had 900 chances in a year. I think Ozzie Smith might be the only other shortstop to do that. In many ways, I had the skills to catch the ball. I had a good strong arm. I had to figure out, how does a big guy play that position. So, I took a great deal of pride in my defense. It lended itself to more of an analytical use of your mind, too. Tendencies, and counts, and matchups against pitchers and hitters — all those things factored into where you positioned. You watch the game today, and all those things are spit out from a computer. Now, you see people playing over, not a whole lot of thought goes into why they are over there. I was actually the opposite. My mind was moving all the time. Sometimes I could start off playing a hitter pull, then, by the end of the at-bat, I’m playing him the other way depending on counts and those sorts of things.

Q: Do you have any superstitions around your glove?
A: I didn’t like anybody putting their hand in my glove. Reason for that is you have a fingerprint in your own glove, and I wore it a little bit off my hand, so it changes the feel of the glove when somebody puts their big ol’ fat fingers in there. I was sort of territorial with that. I didn’t like that. I’d probably go through a glove … a glove would maybe last three quarters of the year. You always had a backup and always had one ready. I wanted to keep my glove flat, keep it a little more open. Sometimes when the glove became a little too flimsy, it was time to start over with a new one. I wasn’t superstitious necessarily, but I just didn’t like people putting their fingers in the glove. To the point that I threw out the first pitch [Tuesday in Baltimore], and to get loose for that, somebody threw me a glove. I was sensitive to putting my hand in someone else’s glove. I just let it hang on my hand just a little bit so I wouldn’t mess up the feel.

Q: Have you considered what the coverage of a streak like that would be in this media era?
A: I thought it was pretty phenomenal in the old era of media, I suppose [we’ll call it that]. Yes, the scrutiny, the attention, every story would have unfolded in every stadium. It is a little unnerving that today’s players or today’s young people live so much out in the open and they share so much. There was a much more private nature of how you went about your business, what your routines were that you didn’t share. But, it seems like now, everything is shareable. But, even then, dealing with the media and trying to control that to some extent so it wouldn’t affect your teammates, so it wouldn’t affect your work habits, that was a challenge. I think by and large we came up with a pretty good plan for that.

Q: Which part of your body ached the most during the streak?
A: On a daily basis? [Laughs] I don’t know. On different years, different parts of your body. I always had a little history of a back issue, so being a little taller, sometimes my back would go out. Thank goodness I had a trainer that understood that and almost acted as a chiropractor on a daily basis. Playing every day and throwing every day, you underestimate how much you throw. Your arm was constantly sort of barking. But, they’re all normal aches and pains that players play through.

Q: You’re heavy into youth baseball. In what ways do you think teaching baseball for kids through teenagers can be improved?
A: Kids are playing more games. I think there are some [9-year-olds and 10-year-olds] playing 130 games a year. That’s a professional schedule to me. I never got close to playing those games. I’m a big advocate of when your baseball season is over, pick up a basketball. Pick up another sport so you work your athleticism, you don’t wear down your body in a physical sense and emotionally, [avoid] the mental burnout that can come from playing a professional schedule. The kids’ development, they’re not there yet. It’s hard enough for us to play 130, 140 games in a season, and we were armed with a little stronger and more developed brain, one that could withstand failure and successes easier. I do worry about the amount of baseball that they’re playing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re better. You start to perfect skills on a small diamond, in some ways, I think it could be a bad habit you’re getting into if you start to learn how to play shortstop on a 60-foot diamond, and you’re running in and making plays and making throws on that size diamond that you won’t be able to make on the 90-foot diamond, sometimes those skills are head to let go of. So, I’m a little concerned. Kids that play on multiple teams, I don’t know whether it’s kids or parents that forget you can’t pitch for every team on the same day. So, some of these restrictions that are happening — pitch counts — it’s an attempt to preserve and keep the kids’ arms in shape. So, they’re all challenges people need to be aware of. I think the parents can play the biggest role. They’re with the kid. They can hold the coaches accountable.

Q: What would the young you, who presumably dreamed about a baseball future, think of where you currently are?
A: [Laughs] I would be happy with that opportunity. My only regret, or my only complaint, would be I would want an opportunity to play in the playoffs more. When I look at Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter, it seemed like a bad year for them was losing in the first round of the playoffs. So, you play the game for all those reasons; you want to be in the playoffs, you want to win, and the fastest seasons I ever played was when you were part of a winner. The longest seasons were when you part of a loser. I was able to fulfill a dream, and play in my hometown and play for a long time on one team. So, I can’t imagine it being much better than that.

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