Cal Ripken's 14-year march into baseball history placed him side-by-side with New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig last night, and just hours away from an achievement so monumental that it will leave a very famous monument at Yankee Stadium with a serious credibility problem.
No one figured on this when the Yankees placed a stone in center field on July 4, 1941, to honor the Iron Horse, ". . . whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time."
Ripken officially equaled it at Camden Yards when the Orioles left the field in the middle of the fifth inning with a seven-run lead. The mid-game ceremony has become familiar to Orioles fans during a well-orchestrated three-week countdown, but the sellout crowd of 46,804 exploded into an emotional 5-minute, 20-second ovation when an illuminated No. 2,130 was unfurled on the wall of the B&O; warehouse.
The record -- once seemingly unapproachable -- should fall tonight when the Orioles close out a three-game series with the California Angels, but it would be hard to imagine a more perfect evening than the one in which Ripken had three hits, three fifth-inning curtain calls and joined in a home run barrage that carried the Orioles to an 8-0 victory. Even the final score was a perfect tribute to No. 8.
"I'm not in the business of scriptwriting," Ripken said afterward, "but that would have been a pretty good one."
Ripken, who has been in the starting lineup without interruption since May 30, 1982, came through the game without a bruise, making No. 2,131 pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Pitcher Scott Erickson helped assure the happy ending with a three-hit shutout, but who's going to remember the score 30 years from now? The night belonged to Ripken, who made two curtain calls during the fifth-inning stretch before umpire Al Clark motioned Jeff Manto to the plate, then a third when the crowd forced Manto out of the batters box with another deafening roar.
"It was a very powerful moment," Ripken said. "You wish everybody would be able to experience a moment like that."
There are certain to be more of the same tonight, when another sellout crowd packs Camden Yards for the record-breaker. Both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are scheduled to attend tonight's game, apparently becoming the first chief executive and vice president ever to watch a baseball game together outside of Washington.
It also will be another night of diversion for the discouraged Orioles, who were supposed to be fighting for a title while Ripken carved out his place in baseball history. Instead, there is little left to fight for but a place in line to shake his hand after the game.
"It's a pretty big event for everybody," said pitcher Mike Mussina, who will be the Orioles starter tonight. "We're just fortunate to be on the field with him. He's been playing so long and he has played with so many people, and we're going to be out there when he does it. It might be the most impressive athletic accomplishment of our lifetime."
The proof may be in the star-studded guest list for the tying and record-breaking games. The stands were full of familiar faces last night, including Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas, all-time home run king Hank Aaron, Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, actor Tom Selleck, rock star Joan Jett (who sang the national anthem), basketball star David Robinson, Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams and former Terrapin star Joe Smith. Most of them took part in a surprisingly informal post-game roast.
"What he has done, well, it would be easier to hit the lottery," said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who wrote Ripken into the lineup on Day One and delivered the ceremonial first pitch last night. "It's just fantastic . . . something that I don't think any generation will ever see again."
The Streak has always invited comparisons between Ripken and Gehrig, but there was no way to compare last night's game with the 2,130th and final game that Gehrig played for the Yankees in 1939. No one would know the significance of that game until a weakened, confused Gehrig took himself out of the lineup the following day and went in search of a medical answer for his rapidly deteriorating physical condition.
He had broken the previous consecutive games record (1,307 by Everett Scott) nearly six years earlier, so the streak had simply become a way of life. There was no magic number to chase. No banners to unfurl. Nothing but the inevitability that it would have to end some time. He died two years later of the rare neuromuscular disease that now bears his name.
Ripken's attempt to break that record years ago spawned a growing sense of anticipation that erupted in last night's mid-game and post-game celebrations. Fans in the sellout crowd, many of whom had paid ticket scalpers far above face value to get in, reveled in a moment that was both historic and hysteric. No doubt, tonight's festivities will be even more impressive, with special appearances by members of the starting lineup from the first game of the streak and a post-game speech by Ripken certain to bring the house down.
"Nobody's going to make people forget Lou Gehrig," said Weaver. " 'Pride of the Yankees' will still bring a tear to your eyes 30 years from now, but maybe in 30 years, there will also be a 'Cal Ripken Story.' "