Cal Ripken, who has played with grace and grit for a generation without daring to miss a game, stepped into manager Ray Miller's office shortly before last night's game against the New York Yankees and asked the unimaginable. He asked for the night off.
Sixteen years after Earl Weaver penned his name on the lineup card on May 30, 1982, Ripken did what only he could do. Recognizing the time had come for him to let go of one of the game's most impressive records, he sat on the bench as the Orioles took the field for their final home game of the season.
At a news conference after the game, Ripken said: "I guess I just want to say it was time. Baseball has always been a team game, and I've always thought the focus should be on team.
"And there have been times during the streak that the focus was on the streak and I never felt totally comfortable about that. It just reached a point where I firmly believe it was time to change the subject and restore the focus back where it should be and move on.
"It started in Baltimore many, many years ago. Let's do it in my home state, my home city, with my family and friends and in front of the best baseball fans anywhere."
The Streak outlasted seven managers and included only three ejections and a run of 8,243 consecutive innings. The Orioles were 1,334-1,297 during its time. Ripken exited early from 130 games, including 27 this season.
During the streak, Ripken played alongside his brother, Billy, and for his father, former manager Cal Ripken Sr. Three years before Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's successful pursuit of Roger Maris' home run record "saved" baseball, Ripken's streak became the salve for a disenfranchised fan base enraged by the 1994 players' strike.
While the strike robbed the game of a World Series and forced an abbreviated 1995 season, Ripken's pursuit returned national attention to a sport lampooned as too slow, too rich and too uncaring. On Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken captivated the nation with his celebrated lap around Camden Yards, literally touching many in attendance and figuratively reaching out to anyone who watched from afar. The moment galvanized Ripken's image as something more than a player with Hall of Fame credentials.
"To a lot of people, Cal is the Orioles," Miller said recently. "To some of them he represents baseball."
On that night, he broke Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. After eclipsing Gehrig's record, Ripken played another 501 games, more than a season longer than the second-longest streak, Chicago White Sox left fielder Albert Belle's run of 325.
Last night represented an event many couldn't envision. High school sophomores were not yet born when the kid from Aberdeen had last missed a game.
Relayed to Miller 25 minutes before last night's game, Ripken's decision was preceded by changes, both subtle and obvious, over the last several seasons. He surrendered shortstop for good last season, returning to third base, where he began his first full major-league career in 1982.
Observations were made that his defensive range had diminished and his bat speed slowed. Still, the Iron Man made the necessary adjustments in each role and this year has committed only eight errors while hitting .273, higher than his career average.
"He's an amazing guy," said hitting coach Rick Down. "Sure, he's stubborn. But that's what makes him great. He will not accept failure. It's what has made him a great player all these years. He's an uncompromising guy."
The Streak grew to be larger than Ripken and any of his recent managers, regardless of how many times and how many people he told otherwise. Phil Regan, Davey Johnson, Ray Miller none of them dared touch The Streak.
Miller was perhaps the most reluctant of Ripken's recent managers to touch the issue. At his hiring, Miller said the decision would not be made without the involvement of majority owner Peter Angelos and general manager Pat Gillick.
Ripken apparently had contemplated the move for weeks, but didn't notify his family or his marketing firm until the past few days. He had hinted broadly to Miller last week that he might end his run but didn't offer confirmation until before last night's home finale.
Players speak reverently of many on-field accomplishments but Ripken's feat remained the most awe-inspiring.
"When 2,131 happened, we were on the field in Houston. Players stopped what they were doing and just watched," said Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins, then manager of the Houston Astros. "While fans were impressed, to anyone playing the game it's something even more powerful. Players try to put themselves in that position. It's impossible to comprehend."
Perhaps that's why the Yankees climbed from the dugout during the first inning to join in a standing ovation. Ripken emerged twice from the first-base dugout before finally imploring Orioles pitcher Doug Johns to resume the game.
"It's such an amazing feat because it was not only a physical accomplishment, but also a mental one in that he had to be prepared every one of those games," said Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.
"It sets up different parameters than other players. Other players take a day off when they're in a slump. Cal doesn't."
The trait has sometimes brought him criticism, most vocally from media who insisted his durability affected his performance. Ripken's answer was that he played daily because he was the best available player at his position.
No one ever quibbled.
Ripken came close to sitting at least four times during The Streak, three times before he broke Gehrig's record.
On April 10, 1985, he sprained his ankle against the Texas bTC Rangers but received a reprieve from the schedule. Instead of having to suit up the next day, Ripken sat out an exhibition game against the Naval Academy. He played the following day against the Toronto Blue Jays.
During September's dying days in the 1992 season, Ripken again suffered a sprained ankle running out a double against the Milwaukee Brewers. He remained in the game, received treatment the next day and played.
The Orioles were concerned enough about his availability that they recalled shortstop Manny Alexander from Triple-A Rochester as a precaution.
Until last season's disk problem, Ripken said the closest he came to missing a game was in 1993.
On June 6, he suffered a twisted right knee when his spikes caught in the outfield grass during a brawl with the Seattle Mariners. The knee became swollen but Ripken made no concessions.
Some, including former Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone, believed Ripken might retire after missing a game. The move would mirror Gehrig's departure after playing 2,130 consecutive games.
Ripken, however, will play on, adding to his career while putting aside the achievement that had both elevated him and weighed on him.
Little Iron Men
A list of the current consecutive-games streaks through Sept. 20, 1998. The current top eight falls 1,068 games short of Cal Ripken's mark of 2,632.
|Albert Belle, White Sox||325|
|Vinny Castilla, Rockies||241|
|Neifi Perez, Rockies||227|
|Ken Griffey, Mariners||155|
|Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles||155|
|B. J. Surhoff, Orioles||155|
|Johnny Damon, Royals||153|
|Alex Rodriguez, Mariners||153|
The streak by the numbers
- Games: 2,632
- Avg.: .277
- At-bats: 10,221
- Runs: 1,493
- Hits: 2,832
- 2B: 534
- 3B: 43
- HR: 381
- RBI: 1,494
- HBP: 57
- BB: 1,061
- SO: 1,144
- TB: 4,595
The year in baseball . . .
- Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivate crowds with their pursuit of Roger Maris home run record. McGwire ends up with 70 home runs. Sosa manages just 66, but wins the National League MVP.
- The Yankees sweep the San Diego Padres in the World Series, completing a remarkable year in which they had 114 regular season wins and 125 overall.
- Two new expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, begin play.
- Don Sutton is elected to the Hall of Fame.
- Broadcasting legend Harry Caray dies at the age of 78.
- Cubs rookie pitcher Kerry Wood ties a record by striking out 20 Houston Astros in a game.
- Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza is dealt to the Marlins in a blockbuster deal involving several All-Star players, then is traded to the Mets a week later.
- Yankees pitcher David Wells throws a perfect game against Minnesota on May 17.
. . . and the world
- President Clinton is accused of having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, igniting a sex scandal that lasts all year and leads to Clintons impeachment.
- Titanic becomes the highest grossing film of all time and wins 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- The Winter Olympics are held in Nagano, Japan.
- Seinfeld ends its run on NBC with about 76 million people tuning in for the finale.
- Frank Sinatra dies of a heart attack at age 82.
- The FDA approves the use of Viagra.
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