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Years lend fresh perspective to meaning of Ripken feat

BaseballFootballHistoryCal RipkenLou Gehrig

A few years ago, Cal Ripken and his wife plopped down in front of a television to finally watch the video commemorating Ripken's record-setting 2,131st consecutive major league game.

They sat there for about two minutes when the Orioles legend turned and said: "You know what? I still remember it in my head the way I want to remember it."

Kelly Ripken agreed. They stopped the tape - and haven't watched it since.

For the Ripkens, for Baltimore and perhaps for the sport of baseball, Sept. 6, 1995, has melded into sporting lore.

The images of Ripken homering in the fourth inning, being pushed out of the dugout by teammates an inning later and then shaking hands during a 22-minute victory lap seem indelible in the mind's eye of Baltimore's baseball fans.

Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of that night, an evening of pageantry that featured a John Tesh instrumental as the soundtrack and popping flashbulbs as a glittering background.

There were 46,272 fans at the park and millions more watching from home on ESPN as four illuminated banners bearing the No. 2131 were unfurled on the B&O warehouse beyond right field in the middle of the fifth inning. Players and fans alike choked back tears while applauding a local boy with a blue-collar work ethic.

With the passing of a decade, however, comes the inevitable yearning for perspective, for deciphering what it all means.

Was Ripken's eclipsing of Lou Gehrig's once-unbreakable record one of the most memorable moments in baseball history? Did it indeed help resuscitate a sport that was months removed from another work stoppage?

Or was Ripken's record-breaker just another over-hyped achievement in the saturated, made-for-TV world of manufactured athletic heroes? Has the sports world moved on, with Ripken's accomplishments of Sept. 6, 1995, relegated to a historic footnote? Perhaps most intriguing, has Ripken's feat taken on a different meaning and a greater significance now that a steroids cloud looms over the 1998 home run chase? The answers differ depending on who is asked.

"What it meant then was baseball is back," said syndicated columnist and renowned baseball fan George Will. "The '94 strike, fairly or unfairly, was viewed by the fan base as rich, overprivileged people squabbling over increments of privilege.

"[Ripken's streak] came exactly at the right time by exactly the right personality. It was the sheer everyday-ness of it. What was being celebrated was a guy who got up and went to work every day. People can identify with that."

The steroid era With the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal, the congressional steroid hearings and Rafael Palmeiro's positive drug test, baseball again is at another critical crossroads. Again, its fans are reminded of the tireless Ripken and what he stood for, Will said.

"The 10th anniversary falls at a very different time. The difference is steroids," Will said. "No one ever suggested Cal took steroids, and his achievements are not related to a dramatic spike in productivity. His achievements are about the undramatic, the consistent. Granted, at a high level, a Hall of Fame level, but there are no gaudy numbers other than the one we talk about.

"So just as breaking Gehrig's streak came at a serendipitous time for baseball, so does the anniversary."

Broadcaster Bob Costas who, like Will, was at Camden Yards when Ripken set the record, said it was unlike any other sporting event he had attended.

It was a night filled with honest emotions and void of pretense.

"The hype, the lack of authenticity, the lack of sincerity, the fraying of connection, all those things that plague sports, they were in evidence then. They are just more in evidence now," Costas said. "People were feeling it, especially in baseball post-strike, and I think what struck everyone that night was just the authenticity of it, the authenticity of Ripken's career, his authenticity as a player, the authenticity of his connection to Baltimore."

Fans, but skeptics, too Cathy Helowicz, a children's author from Pasadena and lifelong Orioles fan, was in one of the special event-only seats along the left-field foul line. She grabbed Ripken's hand during his lap, something she'll never forget.

"You were so happy for him, you just wanted to touch him, or wanted him to touch you," she said. "Being a part of that moment was really special. It was just one of the true Baltimore moments that just won't happen again."

Not everyone bought into the spirit sanctity of the evening, however.

"I'm wary of most stuff like that," said Pulitzer Prize-winning author and reporter David Halberstam. "Less and less is spontaneous in the world of sports, and more and more every aspect of sports is orchestrated because people know the camera will be around and will do for the camera what the camera wants them to do."

Halberstam, whose Summer of '49 chronicled the 1949 American League pennant race and is one of baseball's finest historical books, lumps most modern-day sporting feats into one unappealing sector.

"I don't think too much about these records," he said. "They are over-promoted because ESPN has the technology to do it and to switch back and forth and show it live. So I don't get caught up in it."

Still, Halberstam respects Ripken's fortitude in playing 2,632 consecutive games.

"The way he went out and would do it every night and would do it when he felt [awful] is what it means in being a professional. He seems to me to be the embodiment of that," Halberstam said.

"As much as the celebration struck me as inauthentic, what he did [to earn the record] struck me as authentic." Halberstam added.

For Will, that night at Camden Yards exemplified baseball's elegance - from the dropping of the numbers on the B&O warehouse to the reaction of the opponents.

"The Orioles presented it beautifully. The Angels did their bit by graciously coming up on the top of the dugout steps," Will said. "It was a nice illustration of the civilities of baseball. You don't have moments like that in the NFL."

Bert Sugar, the longtime sportswriter, boxing expert and author who has written more than a dozen baseball books, said that night at Camden Yards was "an event and Cal Ripken helped make it an event by reaching out and touching the fans literally and figuratively."

Sugar, a Maryland alumnus, called Ripken's lap "one of the nicest things I have ever seen."

Just a sweet moment? But don't say it is one of the most important records in baseball or sports history, Sugar warns. Once the sweet moment passed, America moved on.

"It's not one of those records that logs in our memory," Sugar said. "We all know he broke a record, and we all can name it. But what is the record now?

"I'm not taking anything away from Cal Ripken, but if he had not played another game after 2,131, it would have gone as unnoticed as his next 500 games."

Sugar said the number 2,632 means little in the sports lexicon.

That's partially because Ripken passed a bigger-than-life American hero in Gehrig, Sugar said. No matter how many more games Ripken played consecutively, he would always share the limelight with Gehrig, the way Hank Aaron shares the home run record with Babe Ruth and Pete Rose shares the hits record with Ty Cobb.

"They are hyphenated records. Rose-hyphen-Cobb, Aaron-hyphen-Ruth, Ripken-hyphen-Gehrig," Sugar said. "They are all shooting for that Everest, and that's what Ripken did. He climbed Everest, and the Everest happened to be Lou Gehrig."

The record also hasn't taken a loftier place in history, Sugar said, because it was a mark of endurance, not performance. It is to be admired, but the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa is what truly captivated this generation's fans.

"[Baseball] sells home runs the way the NBA sells slam-dunks," Sugar said. "Cal Ripken stood for consistency, but I don't think anyone in this generation cares about consistency. They are looking for wham, bam, thank you, ma'ams."

Sugar said young sports fans accept steroids use in baseball and, for them, it doesn't sully the record-breaking accomplishments of McGwire or Barry Bonds.

"I don't think in the minds of young people it will be in any way tainted," he said. "I think this will just be the steroid era. There was the live-ball era, the dead-ball era and now there will be a steroid era."

So Ripken's achievements don't take on a higher sense of purpose because of the steroids controversy, according to Sugar.

Halberstam said comparing Ripken's record to the home run chase is "apples for oranges there. I don't want to make that connection."

Costas: genuine plus But Costas sees Ripken's record as a direct - and refreshing - contrast to other celebrated baseball moments that seem less genuine.

"It wasn't just all the positives [Sept. 6, 1995] represented, but it stood then - and even more now as you look back - in contrast to the crassness, the hype, the commercial exploitation and the lack of authenticity. It stood in contrast to all of that, which I think made it more appealing."

Plus, said Will, Ripken's is an unreachable milestone. The same can't confidently be said about the season home run record, which was eclipsed twice in three years.

"We saw [Roger] Maris' record not just broken but smashed. And then Bonds sails past McGwire, so the very idea of season hitting records looks less impressive," Will said. "No one is going to break Ripken's record. Ever.

"It's not happening again. That underscores how special it is."

Selig rates it high Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said his sport is extremely resilient, and it's an overstatement to suggest any one person or event could "save it." Still, Selig believes Ripken's record-breaker was "a very critical night in our history and Cal did it with so much class and dignity.

"The night itself had so much significance," Selig said. "For historians who will review this, as people are always doing with baseball, the night of Sept. 6, 1995, cannot be underestimated. People can read what they want to read into it, but it can never be underestimated."

Ultimately, the significance of Ripken's streak comes down to interpretation, point of view. What it means now is left to the individual.

But that evening's magic will live on forever for some, serving as the brightest of lights in a game that has experienced significant darkness in the past dozen years.

"I think that a lot of people look back on those days and say, 'Boy what's happened to baseball?' Every day there is this and that and the other. We say it ourselves," said Ripken's wife, Kelly. "But I do think that people really still value that moment in time as something very special and unique.

"In light of that, people think, 'What happened to guys like that?' Well, they are still there. They are just kind of being overshadowed by other things."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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