For 22 minutes last night at Camden Yards they wouldn't let Cal Ripken do what he does best -- play the game.
Mike Mussina threw the first pitch of the Orioles' game against the California Angels at 7:44 p.m. Ninety-six minutes later, baseball stopped for a tribute to Ripken that the crowd turned into a magical event.
At 9:20 p.m., the game became official -- and Ripken gracefully stepped away from the shadow of the legendary Lou Gehrig to become baseball's new Iron Man. The 4-2 victory wasn't assured for another four innings, but for the second straight night the evening was complete, the score was academic. What followed was the most tumultuous tribute ever accorded an athlete in Baltimore, and perhaps anywhere.
When Manny Alexander clutched a pop fly off the bat of Damion Easley for the third out in the top of the fifth inning, the anxious anticipation of 46,272 spectators began to erupt. As the music reached its crescendo and the number 2,131 dropped on the warehouse wall, the crowd took charge of the evening.
Ripken's adoring audience, including such luminaries as the president, vice president and a former Gehrig teammate, Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, saluted Ripken with a 22-minute, 15-second standing ovation. The Orioles' bullpen emptied to join teammates in a respectful mob scene on the steps of the home team's dugout.
On the other side, the Angels responded in kind, as did the players and umpires on the field. Eight times Ripken came out of the dugout for curtain calls, which were interrupted only by a pair of poignant side trips.
The first was to a field box seat just to the left of the dugout, where Ripken took off his game jersey and presented it to his wife, Kelly. Then, after putting on a new jersey, Ripken responded to the urging of Angels second baseman Rex Hudler and his Orioles teammates and made a tour of the field -- shaking hands and talking to fans at every section along the way.
That tour was easily the highlight on a night when the game itself was practically an afterthought.
For the second night in a row, the Orioles' 4-2 victory featured a two-homer night by one of Ripken's teammates, with Rafael Palmeiro doing the honors this time. And for the third straight game, Ripken also homered -- the first time he has done that in more than four years, since June 29-July 1, 1991, his last MVP season. Ripken's homer provided the game-winning run.
Mike Mussina (16-8) labored at times, perhaps in part because of the lengthy delay, but he lasted 7 2/3 innings to get the win. Shawn Boskie (6-4), who gave up three home runs, was the loser.
Last night's game began with a trade-off of bases-empty home runs, but the crowd quickly stilled as both starting pitchers settled down.
Brady Anderson, coming off a two-homer game when Ripken tied Gehrig's record the night before, made a spectacular attempt to snare a piece of the spotlight again in the first inning. The Orioles center fielder crashed into the wall in an attempt to make a leaping catch of a long drive by Angels outfielder Tim Salmon.
For an instant the ball was in Anderson's glove, which was on the other side of the fence. But when Anderson's head hit the top of the barrier, the ball came loose and became Salmon's 32nd home run.
Stunned, Anderson crumbled to the ground and for an instant it appeared he might be a casualty in one of the most legendary games in baseball history. But those would be Anderson's few seconds of fame in a game that belonged to one man.
Palmeiro tied the score with his 33rd homer in the bottom of the first, but that would be all of the scoring until the fourth, when Ripken set the tone for what may have been the most monumental sporting event in Baltimore's storied history.
After Bobby Bonilla gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead with a drive over the center-field fence, it was Ripken's turn. Boskie went to a 3-and-0 count, which is usually an automatic take situation. But not for Ripken, not on this night.
He turned on a high fastball in the middle of the strike zone and hammered a drive to deep left field. There was no doubt about its destination, nor was there any doubt about the crowd's reaction.