Cal Ripken has had the baseball world on a string for more than 13 years, but that didn't do anything to lessen the impact when he played in his 2,131st consecutive game last night to pass Lou Gehrig and become the most durable player in the history of the sport.
The old record, which stood for 56 years and was considered untouchable until the Ripken streak got serious, officially fell at 9:20 p.m., when the Orioles left the field in the middle of the fifth inning and touched off another long and heartfelt celebration. No. 2,131 was unfurled on the wall of the B&O; warehouse in a shower of rooftop fireworks and a standing ovation that didn't want to end.
Ripken, bathed in both sweat and adulation, acknowledged the crowd several times and struck a poignant pose with his two young children. Then, as the cheers rose to a crescendo, he broke into a celebratory lap around Oriole Park, shaking hands and high-fiving with the crowd, the grounds crew, the Orioles bullpen and even the California Angels, who have played the perfect foil for two nights of Ripkenmania. The ovation lasted 22 minutes, 15 seconds. Joe DiMaggio cried. The Orioles won again, 4-2. It was that kind of night.
In the more than 13 years since Ripken settled into the Orioles starting lineup for good, he has received a Rookie of the Year award, two Most Valuable Player trophies, a World Series championship and countless standing ovations, but last night's game clearly was the crowning achievement of a Hall of Fame career. He even hit his third home run in as many games to punctuate the occasion.
"Tonight I stand here, overwhelmed, as my name is linked with the great and courageous Lou Gehrig," Ripken said in a postgame address. "I'm truly humbled to have our names spoken in the same breath. Some may think our strongest connection is because we both played many consecutive games. Yet I believe in my heart that our true link is a common motivation -- a love of the game of baseball, a passion for our team and a desire to compete at the very highest level."
The record-breaking game was played before a sellout crowd of 46,272, many of whom went to great lengths and considerable expense to view one of the defining moments in the sports history. That included President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who apparently became the first chief executive and vice president to attend a baseball game together outside of Washington.
"It's not just the fact that he's breaking the record," the president said in a television appearance during the game, "it's the way he is breaking it. He has been able to combine talent and joy with old-fashioned dedication and consistency."
Who wouldn't want to be associated with Ripken right now? He has surpassed one of sports history's most beloved heroes, and done so with the same kind of dignity and grace that made Gehrig an icon of baseball's golden age. That was apparent again last night, as he took part in a nostalgic postgame ceremony that linked the past and present in a celebration of his baseball career.
The Orioles brought back seven members of the starting lineup from the first game of Ripken's streak, and his current teammates presented him with a granite monument honoring his 2,131st consecutive game. The club honored him with several expensive gifts, including a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced that it will finance a youth baseball park in Aberdeen in his honor.
Perhaps best of all -- from Ripken's perspective -- was the presence of his wife and parents at the postgame ceremony. The entire evening seemed to focus on family and friends, including his own postgame tribute to Vi and Cal Ripken Sr., wife Kelly and former teammate Eddie Murray.
"I just had a need to celebrate it with my own family," Ripken said. "I had a need to celebrate it intimately with them. The last two days were very personal to me. I wanted to share them with the family."
Ripken's sturdy frame and studied approach to the game have protected him from serious injury, but it was his determination and desire that quickly endeared Ripken to the blue-collar baseball crowd that first caught sight of him at Memorial Stadium in 1981. The streak began the next year, when manager Earl Weaver penciled him into the lineup at third base on May 30, 1982, and moved him permanently to shortstop a month later.
He went on to play every inning of every game until 1987 -- a record streak of 8,243 innings -- and start every game through last night. The question is whether he'll be just as stubborn about playing every day now that he is recognized as major-league baseball's all-time iron man. Apparently so. Maybe until he surpasses the all-time international record of 2,215 games, held by longtime Japanese baseball star Sachio Kinugasa.
"I've always approached the game the same way," Ripken had said Tuesday night. "I'm going to come each and every day to the ballpark until something causes me not to play. Maybe there'll come a time when the manager doesn't think that I'm worthy or some young whippersnapper comes along and takes my place. Whatever it might be, I hope I will recognize it."
Gehrig occasionally rationed his playing time to extend the streak.
Ripken never has done that, so there never has been a challenge to the legitimacy of his quest. There was some sentiment, however, for his sitting down last night and allowing the Iron Horse to retain a share of the record.
"It was never about me chasing Lou Gehrig and trying to become Lou Gehrig," Ripken said. "It's just about who I am and how I go about what I do."
Comparisons between Ripken and Gehrig date back to the late 1980s, when The Streak began to take shape as a serious challenge to the "unbreakable" consecutive-games mark. It became a Baltimore obsession when Ripken passed Everett Scott (1,307 games) to move into second place on the all-time list. Now, another 824 games later, it has become the latest -- and perhaps greatest -- chapter of a proud Baltimore baseball tradition that dates back to the only other player who could upstage the Iron Horse.
New York long has claimed title to the two mythic figures in baseball history -- Babe Ruth and Gehrig. Baltimore also considers Ruth its own, and now can plan on another statue outside Camden Yards.