Sports columnist: A moment that wrote itself

Talk show host Ken Rosenthal
Talk show host Ken Rosenthal (Colby Ware)

The date — Sept. 6, 1995 — had been circled on calendars, not just in Baltimore, but throughout the country. The countdown for the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record had gone on for months.

And yet, if I had any idea of what was about to occur — the moment that would overcome the ballpark, the emotion that would transfix the nation, the hundreds of thousands of newspapers and mementos that The Sun would sell — I would have been even more nervous than I was walking into 501 N. Calvert St. that afternoon.

And I was already plenty nervous.

My assignment that night was to write the Page 1 column, something I had rarely done as a sports columnist for The Sun. I was 32 at the time, inexperienced compared with most of my fellow columnists. And frankly, I wasn't sure I could do the event justice.

This was the pre-Internet era. The press box would be packed with sports writers from around the country, and I wanted to show that I was on their level, or at least close. Unlike today, when one click can take you to any writer you admire, most of us rarely saw each other's work.

I went looking for Mike Littwin, who was a friend, mentor and hero of mine at The Sun (our staff was so talented in those days, I had more than one). Mike had moved on to writing feature columns at The Sun, but he had been one of the best sports columnists in the country, always taking the right angle, always finding the proper tone. His advice was simple: Write about the night's meaning. How important Ripken was to baseball, to Baltimore, even to the country.

Yes, the night was really that big — President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore attended the game, as did the most famous living baseball player at the time, Joe DiMaggio. I got to the park early and typed out a few paragraphs that might hold up, along the lines of what Mike had suggested. Those grafs amounted to a security blanket; the game would occur on deadline. Little did I know — and much to my relief — the sucker would write itself.

Ripken took a victory lap around Camden Yards after the game became official and his record of 2,131 consecutive games was secure. All I had to do was write what I saw. Clinton pumping his fists in exultation. Fans tumbling out of the bleachers to congratulate Ripken. Ripken's father, Cal Ripken Sr., biting his lower lip to fight back tears.

I finished well before deadline, which was unusual. Our sports editor, Jack Gibbons, asked whether I wanted to write an update for the next edition. To my astonishment, I said no. I used to drive the sports desk crazy, changing this word and that. But not on this night. For once, I thought I had gotten it right.

Was it the best column I ever wrote? Probably not. But given the stakes, I would say yes — yes, it was. The next day, The Sun sold more newspapers than on any single day in its history, and that wasn't the half of it. The paper also sold T-shirts, posters and aluminum plates with an image of the front page. As I write this, I'm looking at one of those posters, framed on my office wall.

I've covered Olympics, Super Bowls, World Series, everything you can imagine in sports. I've been fortunate to serve as Fox's field reporter for nationally televised All-Star Games and World Series. But when people ask the highlight of my career, I tell them it was Sept. 6, 1995, and nothing else even comes close.

I say that because the event carried such significance. I say it because I thought I had done my job well. And I say it because I was part of something that night, not just a community celebrating a hometown hero, but also a newspaper that rose mightily to the occasion in every conceivable way.

We were like a family then, and at a time when I needed counsel, I had a masterful uncle to give me advice.

It's not too late to say this, is it?

Thanks, Mike.

Ken Rosenthal is the senior baseball writer for FoxSports.com, the lead field reporter for "MLB on Fox" and a contributor to MLB Network. He was the Orioles' beat writer for the Evening Sun from 1987 to 1990 and a sports columnist for the Evening Sun and Sun from 1991 to 2000.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun