Let’s say you want to play in 2,633 consecutive Major League Baseball games – or whatever the credit union equivalent would be for not taking off a single work day for 16 straight years. If that’s the case, baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr., has some friendly advice for you.

Ripken is known as baseball’s “Iron Man” for good reason: he broke a record that was widely considered unbreakable. New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 games from 1925 to 1939, stopping only because he had developed ALS, the disease that would kill him and later take his name. Even in 1939 Gehrig’s record seemed unassailable because it was 823 games longer than the previous mark of Everett Scott – more than five seasons’ worth.

Cal Ripken Jr. autographs a newspaper for a fan at the 2018 CU Leadership Convention
Cal Ripken Jr. autographs a newspaper for a fan at the 2018 CU Leadership Convention

In the decades that followed Gehrig’s death in 1941, only a small handful of ballplayers managed to play in as many as 1,000 consecutive games. Billy Williams played in 1,117 games from 1963 to 1970, while Steve Garvey was in 1,207 from 1975 to 1983. The number 2,130 took on near-mythic significance as fans realized just how difficult it was to not miss a single game for that many years.

Then came Cal Ripken, Jr. He was the son of Cal Ripken, Sr., a Major League Baseball player known for his toughness. Cal Jr. was a shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles for his entire career, which stretched from 1981 to 2001. After sitting out the second game of a double header the night before, Ripken played in a game on May 30, 1982 – and proceeded to play in every single game through Sept. 19, 1998, a stunning total of 2,632 games.

Ripken broke Gehrig’s record by playing in game 2,131 on Sept. 6, 1995 – one of the highest-rated baseball telecasts in the history of ESPN.

Ripken was the opening keynote for the recent CU Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. He said he believes someone could break his record, but that person would need the following eight traits:

Cal Ripken Jr. speaks at the 2018 CU Leadership Convention
Baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr speaks during the 2018 CU Leadership Convention

· The right approach
· Strong will to succeed
· Passion
· Love of competition
· Consistency
· Conviction
· Strength
· Life management

Breaking down those traits, Ripken said having the right approach starts with not feeling a sense of entitlement.

“Being a Major League Baseball player is a really good job to have. Enjoy it,” he advised.

Ripken acknowledged he had a built-in advantage for a strong will to succeed thanks to his upbringing. “I had a strong work ethic because of my mother and my father.”

Similarly, passion was taken care of organically.

“If there was one thing that allowed me to break that unbreakable record it was passion,” he told the audience of credit union professionals. “I loved what I did. Having a love for what you do makes it easy to show up every day.”

Do you love to compete? According to Ripken, you had better, because “we live in a competitive world.”

“It is important to compete against yourself and compete against your teammates,” he said. “Try to improve on any shortcomings or challenges you have. Some players only practiced what they were good at, such as hitting a fastball. The best players practiced their shortcomings. You need hunger, drive and desire to combat complacency.”

Consistency is difficult to maintain year after year, Ripken noted. “You have to adjust and re-adjust, but be ready to perform every day. If you can solve problems at your organization you become irreplaceable.”

By conviction, Ripken means people have to have a thick skin. He told the crowd there were several times during the streak when he, as every baseball player does, went through hitting slumps. During those times there was a clamor by critics from many corners, saying the Orioles would be better off benching Ripken for a game or two.

“When you feel as if you are right, stand up for yourself,” he declared. “Think of ‘stubborn’ as good, but use stubborn to see things through to the end, not just being stubborn to be stubborn.”

The definition of strength might seem obvious, but Ripken pointed out a player would have to have both physical strength and mental strength to maintain top-level playing condition year after year of playing in consecutive games. In the late 1980s, far ahead of his time, Ripken built a gym in his house to maintain his physical strength.

“The mental side requires understanding the link between exercising and maintaining focus,” he counseled. “You can have long-term success if you prepare.”

Control what you can

To achieve at life management you have to “control what you can,” Ripken said. In 21 years playing for the Baltimore Orioles, he had nine different managers – including playing for his father.

“People told me I didn’t go through any change because I played for the same team, but nine managers in 21 years is a lot.”

Ripken said his son’s birth almost ended the streak. After he and his wife, Kelly, were married in 1987, daughter Rachel was born Nov. 22, 1989.

“When you are a baseball player, Nov. 22 is the perfect day for your child to be born,” he said. “No one is playing games that day.”

Fast forward to July 1993, when Kelly was pregnant with their second child, which they knew would be a boy.

“Late July is the worst time to have a child when you are a baseball player, because there are games almost every day,” he said.

With Ripken only two seasons away from breaking Gehrig’s hallowed record, the critics who had nagged Ripken to sit now were praising him. One newspaper reporter wrote in a column Ripken breaking the consecutive games played mark would be the most important thing to happen to baseball in some time – so important it justified Ripken missing the birth of his second child.

That morning, Ripken walked into the kitchen to find his pregnant wife reading the sports page, with tears all over the paper. When he asked what was wrong, she told him, “You are going to miss the birth of our son.”

“Says who?” he replied.

“It says so right here,” she said, stabbing her finger into the newspaper.

After Ripken read the quote he told his wife, “Since when do we listen to what someone writes in the paper? Don’t worry, I will be there.” But when he left the room he said to himself, “Oh [expletive], what am I going to do?”

A few minutes later, Ripken had an idea. He walked back into the kitchen and told his wife, “I am rock solid, honey. You can count on me. If you need me to be there, I will be there… However,” he continued after a pause, “in baseball terms, that day will be known as the end of The Streak. And it will always be associated with our son’s birthday… You don’t want him to have to live with that, do you?”

Several long seconds later, Ripken told the crowd with a smile, “She bought it!” His wife’s doctor insisted on delivering the baby via Caesarean section, which allowed some leeway in choosing a date for surgery. Ryan Ripken was born July 26, 1993, during a scheduled day off between games of a road trip. Ripken flew home from one city, attended the birth, then flew on to the next city in time for the game.

“I celebrated by hitting a three-run homer that night,” he quipped.

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