At the risk of sounding trite, allow me to observe that sports records . . . are what they are. No more, no less.
As I once wrote, a record is merely the fact that a thing occurred. A record does not, by itself, constitute a value judgment or even a particularly great comparison in a lot of cases. It is not cognitive dissonance, therefore, to say that Tony Gwynn was a better hitter than Pete Rose, even if one holds the record for hits and the other doesn’t. It’s likewise not inaccurate to say “Barry Bonds is the all-time home run leader” while nonetheless believing that steroids are bad or Bonds was somehow illegitimate or that Hank Arron was a more impressive player or man. The former is merely noting, factually, who holds the record for home runs. The latter is how you feel about it.
The records are numbers and objective feats. The value judgments we apply later are subjective judgments. Each are equally legitimate as long as we don’t think one takes the place of the other. Records are interesting and good to know, but they do not constitute the end-all, be-all of our consideration of sports. If they did, I wouldn’t like Ryan Klesko or Pedro Guerrero like I do. They don’t hold any notable records. If they did, I wouldn’t feel rather “meh” about Francisco Rodriguez and his 62 saves in 2008. There’s a hell of a lot more to baseball than the numbers and there are a hell of a lot to the numbers more than the fact that they constitute a record.
Which leads us to a pretty notable baseball record. On this date in 1995, Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record, appearing in his 2,131st straight game. He would continue to play every day for the next few seasons too, electing to end his record consecutive games played streak at 2,632 in 1998.
Ripken was already a generational talent at shortstop and was destined for a first-ballot induction to the Hall of Fame with or without that record, but the Iron Man label and the consecutive games streak is what he is best known for. It likewise became a signature moment in the era following the 1994-95 strike, with many claiming that Ripken’s streak rekindled a love for the game in the masses that had been all but extinguished due to the labor strife. My above headline notwithstanding, at the time, there is no question that Ripken breaking Gehrig’s record was A Big Deal.
But how big a deal was it? Or, rather, how big a deal should be think of it now, 21 years later?
Make no mistake: I am not trying to hate on Ripken’s record. It’s insanely impressive, especially if you have any idea about the kinds of wear and tear ballplayers deal with. And that’s before you realize that Ripken played one of the most physically demanding positions on the field and that he did it in an era where the equipment, training and luxuries were not quite as good then as they are now. Your son’s little league cleats are probably higher tech than what Ripken wore in 1983, your boss probably has a soaking tub better than the Orioles clubhouse had that year as well and astroturf is almost extinct these days.
It was also, in and of itself, really cool for it’s own sake. There are records where a lot of people are bunched up at the top and new guys break it every few years. This, however, was a record thought to be unbreakable. It lasted for nearly 60 years. The third place guy — Everett Scott — is over 800 games in the rear-view mirror of Gehrig. In the 70s and 80s people gave props to Steve Garvey for being something of an Iron Man but Ripken more than doubled up on him. There are records and then there are RECORDS. Ripken housed everyone in this regard, with only Gehrig being anywhere close to him. I don’t care if it’s the record for catchers interference or all-time strikeouts: if you’re THAT friggin’ dominant in your category, it’s pretty neat. I think Ripken’s record is one of the coolest ones there is.
What I find myself asking more and more as the years go on, however, is whether the feat is as meaningful as people like to say it is, even if it is still cool. I take that “value judgements and records are distinct things” approach and wonder what the record is about at its essence. If we give it vague value, and say it’s about “determination” or “discipline” or something, I tend to feel like it’s truly meaningful and impressive. If, however, we’re more direct about it, and say it’s about “playing through pain or injuries” or simply showing up for work each and every day I am less impressed.
In the abstract I wonder what kind of message a record like that sent or continues to send to players and coaches at any level in any sport. I wonder whether if, in celebrating it, we’re celebrating the kind of “suck it up and play through it” attitude that, when it doesn’t involve a freak of nature like Cal Ripken, can be destructive or, at the very least, counterproductive. Most of us could use a day off now and again. Most athletes need a rest. Any athlete needs to listen to his body and not play when it is hurt or injured, and it’s hard enough to do that as it is given the tough-guy culture of sports. That’s probably harder to do when being an “Iron Man” is among the game’s most venerated feats. What’s the opposite of iron? I dunno, but it’s probably not a great adjective in a sports context.
Some have suggested over the years that Ripken could’ve been a better player if he had taken some days off. He probably could’ve — who isn’t better with some rest now and then? — though we can’t know for sure. My friend Mike Bates of SB Nation tweeted this afternoon that Ripken not taking a day off here and there could’ve cost the Orioles a shot or two at the playoffs. That’s completely unknowable, though it is kind of fun to talk about. Indeed, it’s the stuff you sort of have to talk about when you accept that a record is just a record and that the number does not end the conversation about the feat.
For my part, I still think Ripken’s record is cool. After 21 years I don’t think it meant as much as a lot of people wanted it to mean back in 1995 — it didn’t “save” baseball, for example — but it’s a neat thing. There is more to a feat, though, than it simply being a record. There is more to Ripken’s streak than 2,131 or 2,632. What it means to you will vary depending on who you are, who you root for and what you value and we probably won’t all agree about that. But that’s why God invented baseball arguments.