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Tim Kurkjian’s Baseball Fix – Cal Ripken, the birth of The Streak and the toughness it took to keep it going

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You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.

ON THIS DATE IN 1982, Cal Ripken began his consecutive-games streak.

It ended 16 years and 2,632 games later, a streak that demolished the previous record of 2,130 by Lou Gehrig, and probably is the most unbreakable MLB record. It was a streak achieved by an unbelievably competitive person, a man who always wanted to be available to help his team, a remarkably strong man and, after his father, the toughest person I’ve ever met.

The full “On this date …” archive

“Cal is an alien,” teammate Randy Milligan once said.

On Opening Day 1985, Game 444 of The Streak, Ripken rolled his left ankle when his spikes caught on the second-base bag on a pickoff play. He heard a pop, but, naturally, he stayed in the game. His ankle was so badly bruised it was black and blue all around. On orders from the team, he went to the hospital after the game. The doctor gave him crutches, and told him to stay on them for two weeks. Ripken got to his car, threw the crutches away, treated the ankle all night and next day (a day off; otherwise, he said, he would not have been able to play). But a day later, he played.

How?

“I just taped it up real tight, it was fine,” Ripken said.

Ripken’s pain tolerance was remarkable. Among the many games (indoor hockey; sockball, which was baseball with a taped-up sock) he played in the Orioles’ clubhouse was a game that Ripken invented, and, of course, he was the champion of: which player could withstand the most pain, and which was the hardest to bruise.

“Ten minutes before the start of a game, Rip threw me down and stuck a knuckle in my ribs,” pitcher Ben McDonald said. “Then a couple of guys jumped him, and dug their knuckles in his ribs. We had him pinned down. He was yelling, ‘No! No!’ But he wouldn’t give up. He would rather die. The next day, we compared ribs. I had three big bruises; he had one tiny red spot.”

McDonald laughed.

“I can’t wait until The Streak is over,” McDonald said in 1995. “A bunch of us are going to get him down and pummel him. But we still won’t be able to hurt him. And he will not bruise.”

The toughness came from Ripken’s father, Cal Sr. He was once hit in the face by a line drive while throwing batting practice at Fenway Park. Orioles trainer Richie Bancells raced to the mound. Rip Sr. was bleeding badly, but he screamed at Bancells, “Get the hell out of here! I haven’t finished my round.” He finished his round of BP, went to the hospital and was back in the third-base coaching box, with stitches in his face, in the third inning.

Ripken Sr. was a great soccer player. He played into his mid-50s against men half his age.

“When I was a kid, he came home from a soccer game with his huge blood blister on his big toe; those are very painful,” Ripken Jr. said. “He took me down to our workshop in the basement, he took out a power drill, and drilled a hole into his toenail, relieving the pressure. Blood came spurting out. He said, ‘Oooooooooh, that feels good!”’

Other baseball notes for May 30

  • In 1894, Bobby Lowe became the first player to hit four home runs in a game. He weighed 150 pounds. He hit all four off Ice Box Chamberlain. The next player to hit four in a game was Gehrig, in 1932.

  • In 1927, Walter Johnson threw his final shutout, No. 110. Different time, different game, obviously, but Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz combined for 76 shutouts.

  • In 1972, Manny Ramirez was born. Forget, for a second, all the trouble he got into. He was a very smart hitter and had great balance and one of the most beautiful swings ever by a right-handed hitter.

  • In 1985, Fernando Salas was born. He is the only active pitcher whose last name is a palindrome. His most recent palindromic pitching line was July 5, 2018: 1-1-1-1-1-1.

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Twins won’t allow Bob McClure, Bill Evers to work games because of virus

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When the Minnesota Twins take the field for their first game in July, they will do so without their bullpen coach.

The Twins aren’t allowing Bob McClure or coach Bill Evers to work games this season due to concerns related to the coronavirus, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Older people have been more effected by the virus. McClure is 68 years old, while Evers is 66.

This is McClure’s first season as the team’s bullpen coach. Evers is in his second season as a major-league coach.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune earlier reported news of the Twins’ decision.

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KBO Weekly — Power Rankings still led by a powerhouse

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The more things change, the more they stay the same in the KBO. The NC Dinos came storming out of the gate and, despite a series of challengers, continue their run atop the league’s standings — and the ESPN Power Rankings.

Here’s a look at the week that was and what’s ahead in the KBO.

ESPN’s KBO Power Rankings

1. NC Dinos: 32-14 (Last week: 1) — The Dinos took two of three from both the Wiz and Bears to hold steady at the top of the KBO heap. Six-year MLB veteran Aaron Altherr continues to heat up; he’s hitting .321 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in 23 games this month.

2. Kiwoom Heroes: 30-18 (4) — Kiwoom continued its climb, going 5-1 for the week to improve to a league-best 18-6 for the month. The Heroes’ surge included a win Thursday in which they trailed the Twins 5-0 entering the seventh inning and went ahead on a Byung-ho Park grand slam in the ninth, then back-to-back shutouts of Kia, the Heroes’ first two shutout wins of the season.

3. LG Twins: 27-20 (2) — The Twins’ momentum was stopped cold by a seven-game losing streak, but LG can hope it changed course with back-to-back shutouts of the Wyverns over the weekend. Chan-heon Jung went the distance Saturday to improve to 4-1 with a 2.56 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in six starts.

4. Doosan Bears: 28-19 (3) — The Bears were blanked in the rubber game of their series with the Dinos, losing 5-0 to NC’s Drew Rucinski, leaving Doosan 3-3 for the week.

5. Kia Tigers: 24-21 (5) — It was an odd week for the Tigers, who played only four games because of back-to-back rainouts and were shut out by Kiwoom twice over the weekend.

6. Samsung Lions: 24-24 (6) — A 4-2 week pushed the Lions back to .500, and one reason for their turnaround is the pitching of Jung-hyun Baek, who pitched six shutout innings in Saturday’s win over Lotte. Baek has a 1.50 ERA over his past four starts after posting a 14.79 ERA in his first three.

7. Lotte Giants: 22-23 (7) — Lotte’s Ah-seop Son is hitting .405 (15-for-37) in his past nine games to push his season average to .347, fifth in KBO.

8. KT Wiz: 21-26 (8) — The Wiz logged one of the season’s most eye-opening wins Thursday, crushing the first-place Dinos 19-6 in a game started by no less than Chang-mo Koo, who had a KBO-leading 0.82 ERA going in. Mel Rojas Jr. continued his tear, boosting his league-high home run total to 17, 11 of which have come in June.

9. SK Wyverns: 14-33 (9) — File this one under “all for naught.” The Wyverns snapped a seven-game losing streak with their first shutout win of the season Thursday, then matched that with a 7-0 win over the Twins on Friday. (SK had a KBO-high 19 shutout wins last season.) But LG then turned the tables on the Wyverns with back-to-back blankings over the weekend.

10. Hanwha Eagles: 12-36 (10) — The Eagles’ miserable season was summed up with the ending of Wednesday’s game against Samsung. Hanwha held a 2-1 lead with two outs in the ninth and a runner on second before closer Woo-ram Jung tripped and fell mid-pitch and had to leave the game. The ensuing sequence went wild pitch, walk (on a close pitch), single (tying the game), E6 (continuing the inning), walk-off single for the Lions. It looks even worse than it sounds:

(Selected by Joon Lee, Alden Gonzalez and Dan Mullen)

The week that was and what’s ahead

One thing to know that happened last week: The same thing that’s been happening all season — the Dinos ruled. One by one, would-be contenders have fallen by the wayside as NC keeps hold of a three-game lead over the pack. Now it’s the Heroes’ turn to try to topple the Dinos.

One thing to watch this week: KBO is taking steps toward allowing fans to attend games, perhaps as soon as this weekend. Teams have been told they can begin selling tickets and are waiting for guidelines from South Korea’s CDC, according to ESPN contributor and KBO insider Daniel Kim. The allowed capacity is expected to be around 20% to 30%, depending on the size of the stadium, and numerous protocols likely will be in place, including social distancing, wearing of masks and closed concourses. Still, this should be a positive step and could provide a blueprint for MLB.

Highlight of the week: Not much could be sweeter than belting a ninth-inning, go-ahead grand slam after the other team intentionally walks the guy batting before you. Just ask Kiwoom’s Byung-ho Park.

Bat flip of the week:

Viral moment of the week: Not sure what can be said here other than … yikes!

KBO on ESPN broadcast schedule

Stream live KBO games and replays on the ESPN App

(All times ET)

Tuesday

5:30 a.m.: Doosan Bears vs. Kiwoom Heroes

Wednesday

5:30 a.m.: Hanwha Eagles vs. Kia Tigers

Thursday

5:30 a.m.: Doosan Bears vs. Kiwoom Heroes

Friday

5:30 a.m.: LG Twins vs. Samsung Lions

Saturday

4 a.m.: Kiwoom Heroes vs. KT Wiz

Sunday

4 a.m.: LG Twins vs. Samsung Lions



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New baseball film captures the tournament that made Shohei Ohtani, Yusei Kikuchi stars

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High school baseball in Japan is a noisy, communal, hyperkinetic affair. It starts right away, as coaches hit pregame infield practice with three baseballs going at once, one after another after another, and the constant collision of chatter resembles an aviary. It’s difficult to square this raucous spectacle with the perception of baseball in America, where detractors see a staid, inert sport incapable of capturing the attention of the terminally inattentive.

Every baseball field in Japan is considered sacred ground, and before each game the players gather in a ruler-straight line in front of their dugouts and bow to the earth to thank it for providing the canvas for their endeavor. It’s deep, and it’s portrayed in riveting detail in “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams,” a documentary that premieres at 7 p.m. Monday on ESPN. It highlights a difficult truth: There is very little levity that comes with playing high school baseball at a high level in Japan; it is a task filled with regimented training and complete devotion, heavy responsibility and historical accountability.

Everyone has a job, and they play to serve each other. When a catcher ends the inning on the bases, three of his teammates sprint out of the dugout, two carrying one shin guard each and the third holding the chest protector, mitt and mask. They slap the gear on him like a pit crew, and when they’re finished the catcher runs to his position to the loud congratulations of everybody on the bench. They all cheer the pitcher as he loosens up between innings — every strike is rapturous — and they greet the teammate who warmed up the right fielder as if he’d conquered nations. The third-base coach, always a player because coaches are not allowed on the field, carries an aerosol can of freeze spray in his back pocket and runs to the plate every time one of his teammates fouls a ball off a body part.

On the field, every ballplayer is expected to uphold a century of tradition. It’s not hard to see how stress can build in these young men who are called upon to model the purity and promise of a country’s youth.

Hanamaki High School head coach Hiroshi Sasaki is one of the best coaches in his country, and he is one of the major characters in Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s documentary. The other is his mentor, Tetsuya Mizutani, the longtime coach of a high school in the Yokohama prefecture. In 2018, they both have the same goal, as captured in the documentary: lead their teams to the 100th summer Koshien, the countrywide, 49-team high school tournament that captures Japan’s imagination for two weeks every year. Out of its winners, the tournament creates national heroes for life, but it’s a merciless single-elimination format. Players on losing teams are given bags into which they scoop dirt from the Koshien infield as lifetime keepsakes. Most of them scoop their own tears along with the dirt.

The documentary follows the two teams through the eyes of their coaches and select players. Mizutani hovers over his squad like a brooding, obsessive boss, consumed with reaching Koshien for the first time since 2009. (Just to reach Koshien, his team must win the 200-team prefecture tournament.) His life feels devoid of everything but this quest, and his commitment to Japanese baseball tradition is unrelenting. “I want to remain a stubborn man of the 20th century,” he says, and his militaristic style reflects just that. He refuses to let a player practice until he has gained a certain amount of weight. His words flare and his eyes sear at players that fail to meet his expectations. And, in a twist that pulls the film in unexpected directions, he sends his promising son, Kosho, to play for Sasaki and Hanamaki High.

I met Sasaki while I was reporting a story on Shohei Ohtani, one of his former players. (Yusei Kikuchi is another.) If you’re looking for differences between our baseball culture and theirs, consider this: On the day we met, a brisk Saturday in late March, Hanamaki played a doubleheader. After they won both games, the players bowed to the fans to thank them for attending and immediately headed to a side field to practice for 90 more minutes. They were on the field for nearly eight hours.

Sasaki and I spoke by video call last week, and he was curious whether an American audience would be interested in the documentary, essentially a “Hard Knocks” style look at Japanese high school baseball. I told them I couldn’t predict the response, but I felt pretty sure Mizutani’s coaching tactics would be viewed unsympathetically. Sasaki winced, voiced his admiration for Mizutani and said, “As times change, things need to be adapted, sometimes gradually and sometimes quickly based on circumstances. There are a lot of things in Japanese high school baseball that are done based only on tradition and routine — how things have always been. It’s important to adjust that and move forward with the times.”

The contrast between Mizutani and Sasaki provides the documentary’s narrative tension. Sasaki is the future, questioning tradition and drawing from interests as disparate as corporate efficiency, American training techniques and nature. Despite a culture that routinely allows pitchers to throw 250 pitches on successive days, he removed a struggling Kikuchi from the Koshien championship game in 2009. (Kikuchi, it turned out, was pitching with a broken rib but still felt he betrayed his team.) Sasaki finds solace and balance in the garden he cultivates behind a chain-link fence along the right-field line of Hanamaki’s field, and he draws parallels between coaching young men and finding the right-sized pots to allow the plants to reach their full potential.

I confess to geeking out a bit when it comes to the cultural differences between Japanese and American baseball, but there just aren’t many coaches in the U.S. — especially high school coaches — who approach the game with Sasaki’s level of philosophical intuition. (Most high school coaches in the U.S., to be fair, are consumed with getting the infield mowed and the sprinklers to work.) When I spent a week in Japan in 2018 reporting on Ohtani, I was fascinated by the idea that a pitcher who fails to cover the bag on a ground ball to first — even when the first baseman has an easy jog to the base — is committing not just a mistake but an act of selfishness, because each player exists to make life easier for a teammate. Similarly, a third baseman who attempts to make a showy play on a roller down the line, rather than letting it trickle foul, is not only grandstanding but insulting his teammates. When I was in Japan, Ohtani was going through his first big league spring training. He couldn’t throw strikes, he couldn’t hit, and the Angels had relegated him to pitching against minor leaguers and a visiting Mexican League team. I asked Sasaki if he was worried about Ohtani’s ability to adapt to Major League Baseball, and he smiled and said, “Ohtani must go down before he comes up.” Of course, Ohtani went on to pitch and hit his way to the American League Rookie of the Year in 2018, and last week, when I reminded Sasaki of his sage words, he said, “I know Ohtani. He has a remarkable ability to give himself a software update.”

Sasaki is at the forefront of a generational shift that extends beyond baseball and into the Japanese culture itself. In the United States, baseball’s status as our resident game-of-failure imbues it with a tinge of nihilism, but young players aren’t burdened by the broader social expectations faced by those who compete for Koshien. Last spring, Sasaki brought his team to his town’s sister city, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and he came away with a typically deep observation. “In Japan, the ballpark is considered like a dojo — a martial-arts arena — and in the U.S. it is of course called a park,” he says. “I think there is room to incorporate more things from the U.S. while keeping the core of what’s good about Japan.”

One Japanese tradition calls for high school players to shave their heads. It’s considered a sign of solidarity, a communal act of anti-individualism that bonds teammates and evokes the innocence and virtue that Japanese fans have come to expect. At the end of the documentary, Sasaki, whose remarkable success as a coach — 10 Koshien appearances — has allowed him to become a trailblazer in Japanese baseball, gathers his team to tell them he is discontinuing the practice. It is nearly unprecedented, and his players, arranged symmetrically before him, don’t seem to fully comprehend what they’re hearing.

“I asked myself, ‘Why are we doing this?'” Sasaki told me. “To win, why do we need shaved heads? I couldn’t answer that question, so that’s why I made the change. At first, a lot of people didn’t accept it. I received a lot of complaints and criticisms, especially from the older generation that has a certain vision of how a high school baseball player should look.”

As a sign of Sasaki’s influence, coaches throughout the country followed his lead, including Mizutani, who made the decision before the abbreviated 2020 season. Judging solely by the documentary, it would have seemed inconceivable that this “stubborn man of the 20th century” could make such a concession.

Sasaki’s son, Rintaro, is entering high school this year. The equivalent of an American 10th-grader, he is a big, powerful hitter who projects to be one of the country’s top players by the time he finishes high school. Sasaki had to answer a difficult question: Should he adhere to Japanese tradition and send Rintaro off to study and pursue his baseball career away from his family, perhaps under the tutelage of his father’s mentor Mizutani — whose son, Kosho, is being heavily scouted by the Japanese professional teams after working with Sasaki? Or keep him at Hanamaki High and face the scrutiny and potential charges of favoritism that could come with coaching his own son?

Sasaki has decided, he tells me, to keep his son home. He will coach him as he does every other player. He will push and challenge. He will make sure his son respects tradition as he prepares for the future.

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