SPORTING: Gracious Baseball

At the core of baseball's traditional appeal is the physical constitution of the athletes. Muscularity not only isn't required, but it can be seen as a detriment. In the old days, a ball player might endorse beer and cigarettes. Ball players don't stand apart from normal folks the same way other athletes do.Because the game is played every day, it requires an even mental approach and the honing of specific, job-related skills. A human being who is merely big, strong, fast and smart may not be a good baseball player if he can't constructively deal with frequent failure and master the coordination to be a good hitter.So, unlike football players and track stars who gear up for the big event, baseball players, like their fans in the broader work force, answer the call to daily performance amid the travails of life. One attractive feature of Mark McGwire's recent record setting has been his willingness to discuss personal difficulty. He's been through divorce and therapy. As a young gun in his mid- twenties, he could be brusque, nasty and self-centered. Now, in his mid- thirties, having been through all life has taught him, he has been mostly gracious as the center of all baseball.That said, McGwire also has matured into a monster physically. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he is past average human proportions. Over the last five years, due partially to the use of androstenedione to aid his workouts, he has added 25 pounds of muscle to become the biggest player in the game. Despite a willingness to flash his human side, he has grown larger than life in baseball terms, the spearhead and symbol of baseball's drive to emulate its video games and attract America's youth.Today, with advances in nutrition and conditioning and enough money to work out year around, the best players are better than ever. With expansion, the worst players are worse than ever. The mid-range player, the every day guy, is disappearing. As if to illustrate the loss of medium virtues, two great achievements grounded in the ordinary have fallen in the last month.On September 20, Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles told manager Ray Miller that he wanted to sit. In so doing, he ended a streak of 2,632 consecutive games, the longest ever. Just by showing up to play every day, Ripken obliterated the old record of 2,130, set by Lou Gehrig. On September 6, 1995, the night Ripken surpassed Gehrig, he blasted a home run.Ripken just lived the course of his normal life throughout the streak. That's because it was his normal life, all the way back to childhood, when he hung around with the Baltimore Orioles, for whom his father, Cal Ripken, Sr., was a coach. As a young man, the younger Ripken was projected for the stardom he would attain.As he finally sat, Ripken reached the denoument of a career that has numbered 384 career homers and a .276 batting average. That many home runs for a career shortstop was unheard of, but Ripken wasn't an ordinary shortstop. He was, at once, less and more than that.At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Ripken was too big and slow for the position. But he has played it about as intelligently as anyone. Paying very close attention to his pitcher's tendencies on a given night, studying every batter's history, Ripken can lean and position to make plays despite his lack of quickness. Ripken is not a highlight reel glove man, but a steady defensive player who covers his ground in subtle ways.Despite power production beyond the capabilities of most other shortstops, Ripken will be remembered as a very good player who was extraordinary at doing an ordinary thing, showing up and being ready. Unlike the movie stars who play the game, Ripken greyed and balded in his early thirties, lending a common man touch to a common man's achievement.A couple weeks before Ripken sat, after much build-up, McGwire topped the single-season home run record that belonged for the previous 37 years to Roger Maris. Like Ripken, Maris projected an ordinary persona. Unlike Ripken, Maris' ordinariness wasn't so glamorous or celebrated.Maris grew up in Fargo, N.D., far from the glaring intensity that would soil his great moments with the New York Yankees. Being surrounded by ball players, fans and reporters is all Ripken has even known. For Maris, it was all too much. He was too ordinary, fueling resentment from fans and media that the record of the fabled Babe Ruth should be felled by a simpler man.But Maris was a championship ball player, a fluid right fielder with good power. That's all. Many voters to Baseball's Hall of Fame still believe Maris shouldn't be inducted. He was just a good player who, for one season, rose to greatness, a greatness cheered by few. The pressure made him nervous. He smoked too much and his hair fell out.Now, Maris is gone from the books and, probably, soon forgotten. By ending his streak of consecutive games played, Ripken will be just another player next year, 38 years old, his skills diminished. Baseball will still honor Ripken as it forgets Maris, but neither is part of the plan. Baseball seeks a new orientation, a game of cartoon explosiveness marketed to short attention spans. That means larger-than-life heroes and smaller-than-life foils. Beginning this year, the real-life dimensions of baseball are receding into the past.


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