This week’s conversation is with Cal Ripken Jr., baseball’s all-time Iron Man.
Cal retired from baseball in October, 2001 after 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.
Although he began and finished his career at third base, Cal is still best known for redefining the position of shortstop.
On July 29, 2007 he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Cal received the 4th highest percentage of votes in history, collecting the second highest vote total ever by the BBWAA.
His name appears in the record books repeatedly – he’s one of only eight players in history to achieve 400 home runs and 3,000 hits.
But most notably Cal broke Lou Gehrig’s Major League record for consecutive games played (2,130) playing 2,632 consecutive games before he voluntarily ended the streak.
Think about that for a second – that’s 16 years straight without missing a game.
Imagine not missing a day of work for 16 years… imagine the willpower, the mental fortitude required to keep at it.
We get into that in this conversation.
Cal shares some amazing stories from his career to help illustrate what was really going through his mind during “The Streak,” why he had such a high standard of excellence and cared so deeply about playing the game the right way.
We touch on focus, resiliency, motivation, pressure and more…
“You can’t play tomorrow’s game until it gets here. You can’t replay yesterday’s game, but you can learn from it. So you might as well play the game today.”
In This Episode:
How he’s managing the pandemic?
It really comes back to a real simple premise that my dad said, “You can’t play tomorrow’s game until it gets here. You can’t really replay yesterday’s game, but you could learn from it. So you might as well play the game today.” And the secret to the streak was in meeting the challenge of the day. You have different levels of fatigue, mentally you’re tired, mentally you’re frustrated. Physically, you got hit with a pitch right here and you can’t swing the bat real well. And you come in each day and my advice is to try to win the day. Whatever those challenges are, focus on the immediate, what’s right here in front of you, what you can do to get through that day. And a lot of times it’s convincing yourself that you can.
The Signal to Noise Ratio
I’m analytical in all regards. And so you take information, data, and then you help apply it. Now, so it’s one of my greatest strengths, taking all this little information and putting it to use in a positive way. But the noise to me is all that other information that doesn’t matter, but I’m still analyzing. And so my greatest strength was my ability to analyze and see my job. But my greatest weakness was I could take myself in all different directions. And so I’d have to constantly talk to myself to focus on what is relevant.
Did he ever doubt himself?
There’s always going to be someone that’s better at something than you. I couldn’t steal bases. I didn’t have that skillset, but I didn’t measure myself against a base stealer. I quickly realized that I could compete and I’m not exactly the same as everybody else, but this is how I do it. And that’s good enough to be an important cog on my team. And so determining what you can do and then trying to maximize that, was the challenge.
Why did he work so hard?
My dad, the first 14 years of my life, he was a minor league manager. Then he went to the big leagues as a coach for the next 20 some years. So he probably got close to 40 years in professional baseball. And he used to always say, “It’s one thing to make it to the big leagues. It’s another thing to stay.” And so then the first hurdle is getting there and the second hurdle is to stay. And how do you stay? It’s that you have to adjust and readjust all the time. You just can’t stand pat, you have to recognize what’s happening, make the adjustments.
What did he learn from older players?
I wish I would’ve taken it more seriously.” “I wish I would’ve taken care of myself.” All those things that I was hearing in the back of the bus was from people that already experienced it. And I kept thinking, you only get to play so long. And if you’re lucky, you can stretch it to your… like I played till I was 41. Which was great, but that’s very unusual to play 20 years in the big leagues. And so to me, the motivation was not to miss an opportunity today, to play in the game, to experience today and then try to play tomorrow. And so there was an urgency to maximize your opportunity and play as much as you can.
What did he fear most?
I was fearful that if you don’t do the preparation that you get caught and you make a mistake and it’s embarrassing. The fear of being embarrassed or the fear of not looking like what you’re doing was a driving force. As you play the game longer, there’s more complications to that game. If the ball is hits slow, what do I do? There’s a guy on first base, that’s runs fast, he got home play, doesn’t run fast. We’re up two runs, when do you take a chance when you don’t take a chance?” So I would go through those plays all the time so you don’t get caught in the high speed moment. You’re preparing for what happens here, what happens there? I always wanted to be prepared and not be caught by surprise in front of 50,000 people on TV.
It was a learned behavior, for sure. It’s by failing and knowing when you analyze what you did is that I was too jacked. I was too jumpy, I was running out there, and then recognizing that was the cause of you not coming through. You pulled off the pitch, you got out too soon. My tendency was I want to charge out to the pitcher, and so the secret to hitting is to let the ball come to you. When you gather your load as a hitter, you’re stalling the process, and then when the ball comes in then everything comes together. When you’re anxious or nervous or wanting to do well, so well, understanding me was my stride would start the outweigh too soon, and then you get in a position where you can hit and then … So understanding that, then you can come back to saying, “How do I fix that? Well, I got to calm myself in the moment.
There was always something that I thought was different in me than other players, was when somebody said, “When things are outside of your control, you should just accept it. You should go with the flow,” that was counterintuitive to me. It was why can’t I put something of control on things that I can’t control that will give me a chance? Put some controls on things that … Instead of just accepting the way it is, put some controls on it. That always worked with me.
How he’d respond to mistakes
My dad used to always say too, when a ball goes in the outfield and it bounces off the wall and an outfielder goes to pick the ball up and he misses it the first time, and then compounds the mistake. So he would always say, “Take your time. Don’t panic. Pick it up the first time.” And so don’t compound your mistake. And I always thought that if you make an error and you got your head up your rear end, then you’re going to make another mistake, and then you’re going to make another mistake. You’re going to compound it. And then that’s when you really have to be on your game to say, okay, let me focus. Let me concentrate. Let me be into the moment so much where I do not make another mistake. And it wasn’t about putting pressure on, but it heightened your awareness and your focus almost to protect yourself from embarrassment or making a mistake again.
What motivated him?
An award is an acknowledgement that you’ve done something well, but it does not replace the feeling you have that you did it. So whether you win the award or not, it doesn’t take away the accomplishment. So I never played for awards or never played for accolades or even never played for money. Money got in the way. One of my worst years of my career was because I let contract negotiations go into a season, which I would have been a free agent at the end of the year.
Making the best of any situation
I played on a team that lost 21 games to start in the season. We were 0-21. In the midst of that be fired my dad. August 6, they fired my dad in the middle of a professional baseball season. We lost 15 more in a row. We were 0-21. The worst laughingstock of the league. The worst attention you can get. Again, you wanted to hide somewhere, but then what came out of that was you felt like it was you against the world, you and your team. I became a better teammate. I became more supportive. I became more understanding. We all clung to each other to get through that times. Almost the very next year, with that same group of guys, we were playing for the pennant at the end of that year. I think there was a value in if I can get through that and I can learn that, then there’s not going to be a challenge out there that you can’t get through. As negative as that was in the context of your life, I was thankful that I went through that.
What he’s most proud of with “The Streak”
The coolest thing about the celebration is that’s a thing that people are most proud of, 30 some years without missing a day on the job, going all the way through 16 years of schools and not missing a day in school. Those streaks that were being told to me was really the magic of that whole celebration is that people were telling me that. In the end, I decided to do it the last day at home so that it could be embraced as a positive, as opposed to just ending it.