Cal Ripken hasn't required any prodding to take the field for the past 2,131 games. But when last night's game became official and Ripken established himself as the most durable man in baseball history, one game better than Lou Gehrig, a Camden Yards crowd of 46,272 and his teammates moved him to do just that.
After hearing them sustain a standing ovation of more than 10 minutes, Ripken emerged from the Orioles' dugout -- pushed out, actually, by teammates -- to begin a slow, circular tour of the ballpark, touching fans with words and smiles and handshakes all the way around.
The cheering had started when Damion Easley stepped into the box with two outs in the top of the fifth inning, the Orioles leading 3-1. One more out and the game and Ripken's place in the record books would become official.
By the time Easley popped out to second baseman Manny Alexander, the crowd was standing. Ripken was smiling broadly as he ran off the field, and as he put his glove down in the dugout, teammates gathered around to congratulate him.
The Orioles relievers climbed over the left-center-field wall and ran across the field to join in, and uniformed policeman stepped out to ring the field. The California Angels stood in front of the dugout and clapped; starting pitcher Shawn Boskie didn't even bother starting his between-innings warm-up, anticipating a long delay.
Some 70 seconds into the cheers, the No. 2,131 unraveled on the B&O warehouse, and Ripken stepped out of the dugout and waved. A small cannon exploded beyond the center-field stands, eight times for No. 8.
Ripken looked up at the private boxes, searching for a glimpse of his father, and when the eyes of Cal Ripken Jr. met those of Cal Ripken Sr., son pumped two arms in the air, and father answered in kind. His mother, Vi, stood next to his father, crying.
Ripken then walked over toward the box seats where his children sat with his wife Kelly, pulling out and unbuttoning his jersey as he went. Ripken removed his jersey, handing it to Kelly in a lump, and in doing so, he revealed a black T-shirt with white lettering on the back that read, 2,130+ HUGS AND KISSES FOR DADDY. He picked up his 2-year-old son Ryan and kissed 5-year-old daughter Rachel. With the back of her hand, she wiped the spot where her father had kissed her. Ripken reached over and shook the hand of his brother Bill, sitting nearby.
Boskie came out to warm up 4 minutes and 30 seconds into the ovation and started throwing softly, but the cheers would not die. The crowd chanted "We Want Cal!" and he came out again, waving in all directions, one big wave to his mother.
He went back into the Orioles' dugout. They called him out again. And again. Ripken came out and pointed at his heart, mouthing the words, "I can't take much more of this."
Angels catcher Jorge Fabregas talked with plate umpire Larry Barnett, and then went to Boskie, who returned to the dugout. No sense in warming up. Ripken, shaking his head, was called out again. And again. The crowd would not let up.
Then, with Ripken smiling, teammates Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro pushed him out, and slowly he started down the right-field line. The crowd responded with a roar.
Hands reached out to him, and Ripken reached back. Upon reaching right field, he shook hands with the groundskeepers and policemen. Several fans in right-center field climbed over the railing and dropped to the space between the outfield wall and the stands to shake his hand, and Ripken leaped to reach them.
As he passed the Orioles' bullpen, where the relievers had returned, and reached up to slap five with each man, stopping to shake hands with coach Elrod Hendricks. Ripken continued to touch fans in left field, around the left-field line, many yelling congratulations. He slowed when he reached the Angels, lined up in front of their dugout. Hall of Famer Rod Carew, the team's hitting instructor, met him with a hug, and so did ex-teammate Rene Gonzales.
Ripken continued, until he got back to Bill and Kelly and Rachel and Ryan. Twenty minutes had passed since Easley's pop-out. Ripken was greeted by clubhouse attendant Butch Barnett, who had tears streaming down his face, and they hugged.
Boskie began warming up, but the called for Ripken again, and for the eighth time -- No. 8 -- he came out to acknowledge them.
The game resumed after a delay of 22 minutes, 15 seconds, and when Ripken sat down, he let loose a huge breath.
Ripken and many of his peers and fans left Camden Yards on Tuesday night feeling breathless from Game No. 2,130, touched by its theater: The standing ovation of more than five minutes, Ripken's sixth-inning home run, the last out coming on a grounder to shortstop, the Orioles' run total of eight matching Ripken's number. Even Ripken referred once to the presence of baseball gods.
By comparison, the early innings of last night's game felt anticlimactic. When Ripken stepped into the batter's box for the first time, the cheers lasted less than a minute. Streak Week seemed to have drained everyone.
It was left to Ripken, the most durable player in history, to knock some life back into Camden Yards.
He got a little help from Bonilla, who led off the fourth inning with a long homer to center field, pumping his left fist as the ball disappeared over the wall. Ripken, the next hitter, greeted Bonilla near home with an outstretched hand, and walked to the plate.
Boskie threw three straight balls to Ripken. A 3-0 count. Playing 2,131 consecutive games merits a green light, and Ripken got it -- and hammered a 380-foot shot into the left-field seats, his third home run in three games. The crowd erupted, the Orioles led by two runs, and the stage had been set perfectly for what was to take place the next inning, and after the game.
Ripken's teammates had been at a loss to decide what to give him during last night's post-game ceremony. In fact, when they flew home from their West Coast road trip Aug. 27, they hadn't even met to discuss some options, and a feeling of panic was beginning to set in.
The morning of Aug. 29, Mike Mussina picked up this newspaper and read about Ripken reaching an agreement to endorse Chevrolet trucks, a story under the headline that included the words "Like a rock."
Like a rock. Boom. Mussina called Julie Wagner, the Orioles' director of community relations. "How about we give Cal a rock?" Mussina said.
Wagner laughed at first, but the more they talked about the idea, the more they liked it. Calls were made, and a local quarry provided a chunk of white marble. This was shaved down to exactly 2,131 pounds, and that number was cut into the rock presented to Ripken last night.
Brady Anderson's task had been much more difficult. As Ripken's closest friend on the team, he had been asked to write something and read it after last night's game. Anderson thought for days about what he wanted to say, and, on Aug. 28, an Orioles' off day, he started writing at his apartment, finishing the first draft nine hours later.
He continued to tinker with his speech right up until two days ago, before putting it away. Writing it was difficult, Anderson said before last night's game, because he wanted "to make it right. I had a lot to say about Cal."
Other Orioles were betting that Anderson would not get through his speech without breaking down. Mussina sympathized: "All I know is, I'm glad I'm going first."
For two days, the Orioles were full of emotion, tight throats a common disorder as they watched the interplay between Ripken and his faithful fans. On Tuesday night, Bonilla waited in the on-deck circle with Ripken an inning after the fans stood and cheered him for more than five minutes, and mentioned to the Orioles' shortstop that he had nearly broken down just watching.
"Bobby, do you cry at movies?" Ripken asked him, a little surprised.
Bonilla replied, "Absolutely, if it's a tear-jerker."
These games were tear-jerkers, high drama, suspense, and they felt it all.
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