Around 7: 30 last night, Cal Ripken ended the most imposing record in sports by entering Orioles manager Ray Miller's office to say it was time.
Quietly and without warning, Ripken decided to end a major-league record of 2,632 consecutive games played, all starts and all in an Orioles uniform. For the first time since May 30, 1982, the left side of the Orioles' infield did not include the former American League Rookie of the Year and two-time Most Valuable Player who also had come to represent the virtues of perseverance and work ethic.
Injuries or poor performance didn't stop Ripken in the game that ended as a 5-4 loss to the New York Yankees and officially eliminated the Orioles from playoff contention. It was the player himself who determined that the dying days of a disappointing season was the proper time to remove himself from the lineup as well as the accompanying speculation regarding The Streak's future.
For at least one night, Ryan Minor manned third base. He ran to the position without much notice as the starting lineup was silently posted on the main scoreboard. Underneath Calvin Pickering's name appeared: Minor 3B.
What followed was of little consequence except for history. The Orioles are still struggling to stay above .500. The Yankees still wait for the postseason. And for a moment last night Camden Yards waited to grasp what it was witnessing.
After Chuck Knoblauch grounded out for the game's first out, the stadium video screen in center field focused on Ripken seated in the Orioles' dugout. Applause built quickly and the Yankees bench emptied onto the warning track in front of the dugout. Ripken seemed embarrassed by the attention given his absence. He left the bench, acknowledged the crowd and returned to the first-base dugout well. Neither a sellout crowd, his teammates nor the Yankees were prepared to let him stay there.
Ripken finally re-emerged for a longer acknowledgment, tipping his cap and waving his arms toward the crowd and then to Orioles starting pitcher Doug Johns, as if to urge the left-hander to resume the game. Dutifully, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter stepped into the box, Johns went into his delivery and Ripken left the field. Several innings later, the Iron Man resurfaced in the Orioles bullpen, as if to make it obvious that for one night he would not approach a bat rack.
With his presumptive heir, Ryan Minor, stationed at third base, Ripken occasionally left the bullpen to throw between innings with center fielder Brady Anderson and fans seated in the adjoining bleachers. The crowd rose not only for the balls Ripken tossed their way but to applaud the moment.
Ripken had hinted at yesterday's move early last week when he approached Miller in his office. The two discussed the possibility of him ending The Streak before season's end, but Ripken gave no firm indication of his plans. When asked on Thursday about the chance he would not play, Ripken said, "You'll have to watch and see."
Ripken had told associates the scrutiny and nagging questions about when The Streak would end had become oppressive. Typically cooperative and often enlightening, he had begun to limit interview requests in recent weeks.
As part of their discussion, Miller had told Ripken he would prepare two lineup cards -- one bearing a conventional lineup that included Ripken's name. The real one would not be released until Ripken was ready.
Ripken had notified only his immediate family, closest business associates, and Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos.
Less than an hour before the game, he called Angelos, who commented later, "He is an amazing athlete. I don't think there will ever be another Cal Ripken or anyone capable of accomplishing what he has accomplished."
His mother, Vi Ripken, said her son had called in the afternoon.
"He called from home and said he was going to sit down tonight. I said 'You're what?' "
"I think what Cal's done is remarkable and I'm just glad he was able to do it himself rather than someone else doing it just to do it."
General Manager Pat Gillick was in the midst of announcing his anticipated resignation when press box attendant Earl Sterloch entered a press work room and whispered to John Maroon, director of media relations. When Maroon didn't rise immediately, Sterloch added, "It's an emergency."
Maroon hustled downstairs to the Orioles' clubhouse. There Miller told him of Ripken's decision and handed him a modified lineup. Minor's name was inserted in place of Ripken's.
Suddenly a game without meaning became the center of the baseball universe.
When shortstop Mike Bordick approached Ripken about warming up, he received an unexpected answer.
"I went up to him and said, 'Let's go.' He looked at me -- I noticed he didn't have his glove -- and said, 'You better find someone else to throw with tonight.' I was kind of stunned."
During the second inning, reliever Alan Mills phoned Ripken from the bullpen and invited him over.
"It was strange," Ripken said. "I'm used to being inside the game and looking out, and today I was outside the game looking in."
Referring to The Streak, Ripken told news media: "I'm a realist. At some point it was going to end.
"It was time. Baseball has always been a team game.
"I thought about it talked to my wife and decided, 'Let's end it in the same place it started. In my home state. In front of friends and family. In front of the best fans in the world."