The ball that had been tantalizingly suspended for 38 days finally fell into the left-field green at Camden Yards last night. Touchdown arrived at 8: 03 p.m with two outs and two on in the third inning. Facing Tampa Bay Devil Rays right-hander Rolando Arrojo, Cal Ripken transformed an otherwise faceless game into something historic by becoming the 29th player in major-league history to hit 400 home runs.
Since hitting home run No. 399 on July 25, the Orioles third baseman had celebrated his 39th birthday, nursed an antagonistic back and tried to demonstrate a degree of patience, the one quality that has never come easily to him.
One night and five at-bats after returning from his second stay on the disabled list, Ripken pulled Arrojo's 1-1 curveball for his 16th homer this season and his first since reaching Anaheim Angels pitcher Chuck Finley.
In quick order the Camden Yards scoreboard scrolled the names of Ripken's 276 home run victims, confetti appeared from all sectors of the ballpark and Ripken's mother, Vi, clutched her hands while her son made a 120-yard jog into history. Ripken approached the home dugout and received a congratulatory hand from manager Ray Miller. He re-emerged shortly after for the first of two curtain calls.
The home run was only his third against the second-year franchise but his 201st in Baltimore and 72nd at Camden Yards, most of which have rattled around the same section that held last night's keepsake.
At least twice this season Ripken has submitted to cortisone injections and lengthy stays on the disabled list. Back surgery has been discussed, though in Ripken's mind only as "a last resort." For several weeks his back even prevented him from sitting on the bench for extended periods.
When done, Ripken did not remember his collection of home runs. He recalled a series of moments, many public, some very personal and a number that caused the Iron Man's voice to waver. He spoke from relief as much as from a sense of accomplishment.
"It's a little bit of pressure off me," said Ripken, whose last homer had come a week before he returned to the disabled list. "It was there right before I got hurt. I felt I was swinging the bat as well as I have my whole career. Unfortunately, I went to Seattle and had a recurrence of the back injury, so I'm off and wondering when I'll be back. You can't help but think about being one away from 400. A lot of people remind you about it. And you don't hit home runs by trying to think about it."
Ripken had tried to homer on July 27 and 29. Once he twisted a ball several feet outside the left-field foul pole. Another time he drove a ball inches below the top of the left-field wall. This time he was just trying to break an 0-for-4 run that had greeted his return.
"I didn't try to hit a home run. I just happened to put a good swing on the ball," Ripken said. "I am relieved at least that one is over."
The moment had taunted him as he missed all of August with the same nerve irritation that cost him much of April and May. He was also stopped 32 hits shy of 3,000, an even higher goal in Ripken's estimation left uncertain for this season.
"I was down for a long time. Physically, I was able to come back and start again. I'm ecstatic I'm able to come back. I can't stand watching games. I want to play. My spirits have picked up. I was able to stand in there and feel pretty good swinging the bat."
Ripken popped weakly to second base in his second-inning at-bat. He reappeared in the third with Albert Belle and Conine on base. Arrojo fed him a fastball strike, then another that missed. When he reached down a third time to cross-fire a curve, Ripken was waiting.
"It was a good pitch for me and him," Arrojo said.
"At first I thought it was foul," said Ripken, perhaps refusing to allow himself the possible disappointment of previous close calls.
But this one stayed well fair, giving the Orioles a 7-2 lead and Ripken another keepsake.
Even within a season otherwise most notable for its low points, Ripken elevated a night that featured a matchup of two teams battling for last place in the American League East, something attractive enough to draw far fewer than an announced crowd of 39,172.
Ripken's career has already been defined by No. 2,632, his awesome consecutive-games streak that will likely endure forever. But last night's home run serves as perhaps the perfect signature for a career devoted to readiness and overcoming discomforts doled out by the game's relentless schedule.
The home run came in Ripken's 71st game and 274th at-bat of a season in which he has dealt with an unprecedented crush of personal and physical trials. While his previous 18 seasons crafted a reputation for commitment, this one has provided a peek at his humanity.
After crossing the plate, Ripken glanced at a spare radio booth behind home plate and found his mother, Vi. Four years before he had spotted her next to his father, Cal Sr., on the night of 2,131. This time he found her without him.
Vi Ripken had attended every home game since her son closed within one swing of 400. Hoping to minimize what she knew to already be significant pressure surrounding Ripken, she never told him of her plans.
"It's so like my mom to come to the game and not tell me," Ripken said. "She probably would have come to every game until it happened, even if it took 200 games, 300 games, 400 games. And she probably would have never told me she was there."
"It was something we knew was going to happen. I mean, we knew one [home run] was coming. It's just nice to be here to see the accomplishment," said Mrs. Ripken.
The ovation was long and strong enough to draw Ripken from the first-base dugout once, then twice, for curtain calls.
"Those celebrations fuel you and keep you going sometimes in a season that's been a little disappointing and frustrating for everyone. Those moments can't make up for everything but they're special, and you try to enjoy the moment," Ripken said.
The third baseman also reflected on those he could not see but could certainly feel. Cal Ripken Sr. died more than five months ago, long enough for almost an entire baseball season to play out but only a flicker of time in a son's memory.
"I've got to tell you, my dad's in my thoughts every time I come to the ballpark," Ripken said. "Who I am as a ballplayer, how I feel about the game, your responsibility as a professional player, your code of conduct, all of that is given to me through my father. I respect that code. I respect what he stood for and how he taught the game."
With nothing left to say, Ripken rose to embrace his mother, her eyes moist from emotion.
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Indians' Chris Haney (0-1, 4.13) vs. O's Jason Johnson (5-7, 6.21)
Tickets: About 6,000 remain