The cheering seemed to arrive from some faraway place, from an abandoned baseball field on 33rd Street, or from a moment in the spring of 1982, or from 13 summers ago when Cal Ripken had all of his potential in front of him but no one ever imagined a moment such as last night.
Under a darkening South Baltimore sky, the big crowd's roar built and built until it echoed onto Eutaw Place, out where the Babe Ruth statue stands, until the Babe himself must have wondered, "What's all that noise? I never heard the likes of it since me and Lou were playing up in the Bronx."
Into this surreal swarm of sound arrived Ripken, arrived for the 2,131st time last night, showing up for work as usual, as though it was just another day on the job, as though these 50,000 people bathing him in affection might have shown up for some other guy.
The indomitable Oriole passed the ghost of Lou Gehrig last night. Just like that, quick as a 13-year wink. The kid from Aberdeen, who grew up just over the horizon in what now feels like everyone's backyard and blossomed in front of his home community's eyes, doffed his cap, waved a little shyly to the corners of the park, and mouthed repeated thank yous.
Then he walked to a box seat where his wife Kelly and his two children, Rachel and Ryan, waited. He kissed the kids, who wiped their cheeks ostentatiously and drew laughter from the crowd, the way children will. Then their dad went off to make a living, the way he does.
In the second inning, Ripken popped out. In a box behind home, President Clinton and Vice President Gore applauded anyway. Just below them, an old Ripken teammate, Ken Singleton, beamed proudly, as if watching a kid he'd helped raise. An old Naval Academy hand, David Robinson, currently in the NBA, seemed awe-struck by the moment.
Cal Ripken is an ordinary fellow who became remarkable through a combination of doggedness and youthful delight in his job. He acknowledges he is no Gehrig, who seemed a god. Ripken is only a man, which makes his accomplishment even more endearing. Gehrig hit .340 over the course of his streak, with 493 home runs, and fought for New York Yankee pennants each year.
Cal Ripken has hit .278 over his streak, with 322 home runs, on a Baltimore Orioles team that has fought seriously for a pennant only three times, once successfully, in all his summers on the job.
Such circumstances make us appreciate him even more. Mired in slumps, he pressed on. Suffering through some hapless last-place summer, he never ducked out.
"He played one whole year with a bad back," coach Elrod Hendricks remembered last night. "But he wouldn't come out. He got hit in the head with a pitch real early in the streak. He could have sat out. He was hitting about .137 at the time. But it seemed to wake him up.
"Some guys," Hendricks said, "seem to look for excuses not to play. We had one guy who said he couldn't play because he slept on his eyelid. But Cal loves the game. Remember that last out of the '83 series, the line drive to Cal? Most guys would have caught it with two hands and squeezed. He caught it with one hand and shook his glove in the air. He was having fun, see?"
It's the way we all want to remember the game, the way we each played it as kids. But it's not the rough and tumble major league game in which Ripken has competed.
Over the course of his streak, 3,711 injuries have sent players onto the disabled list. This computes, over 13 seasons, to 285 players per year. There are 25 players on a major league team. Thus, the equivalent of nearly 12 full teams per year land on the disabled list.
Through it all, through Nolan Ryan fastballs under his chin, through Cecil Fielder rumbles at his ankles, through hitting slumps, Cal has gone on. He is our living tribute to the work ethic, to clean living, to the untapped limits to which ordinary mortals can aspire merely by showing up. "Thank you," he told the cheering crowd last night, or seemed to, as he stood at home plate. In all that noise, you had to read his lips to make sure. It was noise that seemed to shake the stadium, that seemed to stand not merely for this lovely late-summer moment in 1995 but for all the moments of 13 years, for Camden Yards and for Memorial Stadium, and for the things that are possible when somebody insists on simply showing up.