23 years ago I wrote a poem about a living legend who was coming off the greatest season of his illustrious career. Yet he found himself mired in a prolonged batting slump. I marveled at how fleeting fandom could be. “Doesn’t he know the streak is hurting his game?” “Shouldn’t he just take himself out of the line-up…for the good of the team?” “Put aside your personal goal Cal. The streak must stop!”
Cal’s streak didn’t stop! He persevered through a lot of physical pain and plenty of second-guessing by the pundits and the boo birds. Until on September 6th, 1995 (20 years ago today), my brother and I watched Cal achieve the unthinkable…and break a baseball record once deemed unbreakable. Oh, and blast a home run. What made this night so much sweeter (and ironic) was that a work stoppage ended the 1994 season prematurely. Baseball desperately needed a feel-good story, and it found one in its hardest “working” player.
Happy 20th Anniversary to 2131, and congratulations to Cal Ripken: one of America’s true “working-class” legends:
The Iron Bird
Perched on high with the baseball Gods,
The embodiment of America’s game.
The Iron Bird of Camden Yards,
Consistency his claim to fame.
Sixteen-hundred…the streak limps on…
For Baltimore’s number eight.
Flying high in pursuit of baseball’s angel,
Becoming a broken-winged bird of fate.
Proof of the wear, his graying hair,
Uncommon for a man of thirty-two.
Playing through pain the Ripken way,
A throwback to the ”Pride” in Yankee blue.
Just a typical game for Mr. Oriole,
He’s hobbled by a swollen knee.
With the winning run racing toward home,
His diving snare in the hole makes three.
It’s now his turn to break the tie,
As the boo birds rise to jeer.
His swing shoots pain through flesh and bone,
A soaring long ball brings back the cheers.
It’s time to cherish our working-class legend,
Let’s applaud all the courage he’s shown.
Because in the these troubled times of baseball,
He’s been the only constant that I’ve known.
If baseball’s a game that survives the times,
Look to Cal during this decade of doubt.
For watching him play should remind us all,
Of what baseball is really about.
On that fateful day when he leaves his perch,
There’ll be only eight men to play.
Let that vacant spot remind us once more,
That the Iron Bird played there…every day.
Shane Smith, 1992