Orioles columnist Dan Connolly talks with Cal Ripken Jr. about the significance of his streak of 2,131 consecutive games played, 20 years later. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. has been thinking a lot about his playing career lately — partly because the media keep asking him about it. We have an infatuation with round numbers and anniversaries of historic events, and, for Baltimore, one of the most monumental is quickly approaching: 20 years since Ripken, the pride of Aberdeen, broke Lou Gehrig's all-time consecutive-games streak of 2,130.
On Sept. 6, 1995, a majestic night at Camden Yards, Ripken became baseball's all-time Iron Man by playing in his 2,131st straight game. It was feted perhaps like no other attendance record in the history of sports; the country's president and vice president attended the game, which became overshadowed by Ripken's unforgettable lap around the field. He extended that streak to 2,632 games until he voluntarily sat on Sept. 20, 1998, the final home game of that season.
Because this Orioles team is in Toronto for the actual anniversary next Sunday, the organization will honor the 20th anniversary Tuesday with a ceremony at Camden Yards before that night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The anniversary is getting plenty of buzz; earlier this week, Baltimore Sun baseball writer Dan Connolly sat down with Ripken at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation offices in Baltimore. With a backdrop of baseball memorabilia lining his office, including a stunning graphite portrait of his late father as the centerpiece, Ripken talked about the record, the importance it has in the game and whether it may be broken again, among other topics.
Let's start with the obvious. It's been 20 years since you broke the record. Can you wrap your arms around that concept?
In some ways it seems like it was yesterday. In other ways it seems like it was another lifetime ago. Generally speaking, when I think about it, I go, "It's been 20 years? Twenty years already?" And most everybody else's reaction is the same way: "No way. It can't be 20 years." But, yeah, there are some realities; the reality that my kids were 6 and 2 at the time, or 2 1/2. And now, looking at them, that's a reality that says it's been 20 years. But in some ways it just seems like it happened yesterday, so that does blow me away a little bit.
Why do you think the Streak still connects with people all these years later?
I found during the whole celebration of the Streak that year I was put together with many people that would relate their own streaks. So I think they related to a work ethic. They related to showing up as a value that was important to them. I remember a lot of kids telling me they hadn't missed a day of school. Or a lot of parents telling them that [they were] using me as an example to get their kids to go to school. There were many people that worked at a plant that shared their story that hadn't missed a day of work in 35 years. And I was always amazed. I would say, "Now that's really a streak. You're working. I'm playing a game for a living. They should be celebrating your streak." But I found myself saying that a lot. And I thought it was really cool. [Orioles umpire attendant] Ernie Tyler's streak was one that was most famous in Baltimore, hadn't missed a home game in all that time, 30-some years, and the commitment for that. People relate to that, that commitment. I didn't truly understand that until going through that year where the Streak was celebrated. I had a chance to learn that.
How do you put into perspective the timing of breaking the Streak, and the "Cal helped save baseball" talk that you've always been uncomfortable with?
I'll give you perspective. It wasn't my intention to go out there and "save baseball" as everybody has given me credit for it from time to time. But I think after the strike — I think if I remember correctly we struck around Aug. 12, , and then the World Series was canceled and spring training was delayed, and there was a shortened spring training. So there wasn't a good feeling about baseball. It was as if everyone is looking at it as the big business side has shown itself, and maybe it's too big of a form of entertainment. And there were some negative feelings about it. And I remember, probably the early part of spring training, actually the first day of spring training when we showed up, there was this big media interest from the Streak and there was just an interest overall. So I think in some ways people were searching for something good in baseball at the time. They were mad.
And the Lou Gehrig connection. A lot of people when they think of baseball, [they think] that's when it was a game. That was when it wasn't a big form of business or entertainment. They were sportsmen. And I think as we went through, people looked at me in that way. And so I think they liked the fact that it was more like a game and less like a business. So I didn't sign autographs and do all that kind of stuff to try and bring the fans back. But I was responding to everyone else's interest in the Streak and interest in the game. And I think by doing all that kind of stuff, and focusing on it, it aided and helped people find what they loved about baseball again. But it wasn't me necessarily, but I think the timing of the Streak came at the right time where it provided fans — or people — with a perspective and an opportunity to dig down inside and find out what they liked about the game.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the longest current consecutive-games streak is by Orioles third baseman Manny Machado at 127 (going into Friday's games).
All right. Go Manny.
That shows that most players these days aren't playing one full season of 162 games while you played in 2,632 games consecutively from 1982 to 1998. Does that give you additional perspective on the difficulty of the Streak?
Yeah, I mean some of that has changed. There's an investment in the guys that's greater now. There's a more conservative approach. There's more medical information available, so there are a lot of teams I think feel like they can manage a season with some of the medical information. There are stats. There's all this analysis about when you play well, when you don't, about rest according to that. So there's a lot of factors that go into that decision. In my day, an everyday player was considered an everyday player. You played every day. If you were one of those guys that was counted on to be in a lineup, the definition was 162. Now, I don't know if the definition is different now, but I mean I think when they are looking at it, an everyday player might be considered 145 or 150 [games played]. There's just a normal amount of built-in days that happen. So I think the mindset is a little different.
I think once you prove you can play 162, and you could finish strong, you eliminate the physicality of it. I can do it. And then it becomes, really, an effort of … it's more of a strong will or a strong mind. Because it's hard to play. I would think all big league baseball players have to learn to play less than 100 percent. So when they look at me, yeah, you're injured, you're banged up and you've got a game. But once you've learned how you can play less than 100 percent, then everything is OK. Most ballplayers have to do that, so 162 or 150 doesn't mean a whole lot to me. Doesn't make that much difference to me. But I think I sit at an interesting seat. If I can do it, somebody else can do it. I don't see it the same exact way. So if I can do it, and Manny Machado is playing long [enough] … You have to be healthy enough, you have to be worthy of being in the lineup and then you have to have a strong enough will to push through the tough times.
So 2,632 is potentially breakable?
Well, again, I sit in an interesting seat because I did it. And so if I can do it, somebody else can. But if you look at it, and if you look at the mindset, the mindset is a little different now. The expectations are a little different. But, still, if I can do it, physically, somebody else can.
You've accomplished a lot in your career aside from the Streak: World Series ring, All-Star games, 3,000-plus hits and 400-plus homers. But you'll always be connected first with the Streak. How much pride do you have in the Streak and that it's a huge part of your legacy?
The meaning of the Streak, if you just boil it down simply, is that your teammates could count on you every day. Every day there's a game, there's a challenge and you are trying to win. And so I always thought it was a responsibility to your team. You were supposed to come to the ballpark ready to play and the manager chooses you by putting you in the lineup. The first 1,000 games or 1,200 games were like that [snaps his fingers]. And the manager kept writing my name in the lineup. I was willing and I was able and I was resilient and I was worthy of being in there. So it starts with that. But I simply look at it as a sense of responsibility to your team.
The easy way out a lot of times would be saying the challenge got too tough. You play a 15-inning game in Boston and then all of a sudden you have to turn it around and you've got Roger Clemens in the daytime and he's throwing out of the seats [tough hitter's background]. And you know you might say, "God, I'm tired. I played 15 innings last night. Let somebody else meet that challenge." But those are the kinds of days you pick yourself up a little bit and say, "OK, I'm struggling against him, but I've been swinging the bat real well." Somehow you find a way to get a hit in a key moment in a game that will help you beat Roger Clemens. I always thought that that's what the next challenge would all be about. So I'm happy that when I look back on it, your teammates could count on you on a daily basis.
For someone who doesn't know about Sept. 6, 1995, say your future grandkids, what's the first thing that you would tell them about that night?
You'd probably get less information out of me, if I was put in that situation, but I get your point. You are trying to figure out how do you look back on it, how do you describe it to somebody. It was really, really special, No. 1. From a human standpoint, just to make the lap around the ballpark and then to see people and see the joy and the celebration of that on a one-on-one way was pretty cool. To be able to celebrate it with your family in attendance. To be able to greet the California Angels players during the course of the game. To have a moment with my dad up in the box [pointing down and clapping for Cal Jr.], all those things couldn't have been planned out, couldn't have been choreographed and unfolded any better than they did.
To explain the importance of that, I'm not sure I can. It was a commitment to your job. I was able to play every single day. And it's an American value, which a lot of other people see it that way. And it was an accomplishment over time, and I think there was an appreciation for that. So I wish the night was about us being a playoff-caliber team; we fell out of the playoffs. We were playing the California Angels, who were a playoff-caliber team. And it was important, in my sense, to play well and have the team play well, and we did. The Streak got all the attention. I wish it was secondary attention, but it got all the attention at that time. But then it turned out to be less about me and more about a celebration of baseball, I thought.
Is there one moment that stands out most to you from that night, the snapshot from 2,131 in your mind's eye?
I think the more I reflect on it, the snapshot in my mind's eye is Dad. All the other things were great and the collection of all those things couldn't have been better. But my dad wasn't a person of many words when it came to telling you how much he loved you. But in that moment you could feel it, you could see it, you could sense it. There was a million words that kind of came through him and I — without a word spoken. It was just a moment captured within those moments, so I would probably say my dad. And maybe my dad more so than anything because we lost him when he was so young, at 63 years old. And I miss him."
What does the lap around the field that night mean to you and how did it come about in your mind?
It was the furthest thing that I would think I would ever do. Take a lap around a ballpark in the middle of a game. I was embarrassed that the celebration was going on for so long and I came out to respectfully say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," and kind of get the game going because it almost felt like there was this big, long delay in the middle of the game. It didn't feel right to me. The other pitcher is cooling down, we are competing; we are playing. California is in a pennant race. It just didn't seem like that's how it should be, so in my mind I was thinking, "I'll celebrate with you as long as you want, but let's get the game over with first." And the whole concept of when the game became official was interesting to me. That's when you start to celebrate it, which was in the middle of the game, which was weird to me.
So after I kept coming back with no success [of ending the in-game celebration], I remember Rafael [Palmeiro] saying, "We won't be able to start this game until you take a lap." And I kept thinking, "There's no possible way I'm doing that." And then Bobby Bo [Bonilla] and Rafael physically pushed me down the line to start. And I was hesitant and then I thought, "Well, maybe if I do this we'll get the game started." Then it turned into one of the most, best human moments. Because all of the sudden you start shaking hands, you start looking one-to-one, recognize people, recognize names, recognize faces. And then you start to go around and I don't know when the feeling of "let's get the game started again" left, but it was pretty quick. All of the sudden I was there and I kept thinking, "I couldn't care less if this game ever starts again." It was that sort of a feeling. And I just went with it. And it was really good. I don't think anybody could have planned it. It just happened and it happened in a way that was almost perfect.
What will the 20th anniversary be like, both at the ballpark Tuesday and then on the actual day?
Maybe this whole process [of interviews] just allows me to reflect. I've never been someone that wanted to read or go watch things that were written about me. I never thought all the good things were necessarily all true and I never thought the bad things that were written about me were true. And to manage that, you had a perspective, and that's just how I went through. But in 20 years being away, there's sort of a reflection, sort of a going back and thinking. I watched a clip of my dad doing an interview at the house in '95 earlier today. And I thought that was really cool. And I have an interest, because all of a sudden my dad came to life in front of me and I was listening to him. I kind of have a need to go back and maybe I think it's safe to go back and do that now. I would imagine on the actual day I will reflect. And I'll continue to reflect and maybe I'll read a little bit more and go back and look at images and kind of relive the moment. I didn't feel the need to do that at five or 10 or 15, but I'm starting to feel that way now. Maybe that's just a sign of your life.
At one point years ago, you sat down to watch the video of that night and then decided not to. Will you now?
There've been times where I've peeked at it. I've never sat down and watched the whole thing. But when it's on MASN you look up and kind of see it. It kind of makes me laugh because all of the sudden you look at it and you're from the outside looking at it and it's a different perspective, because I had that inside view. And I'll laugh a little bit and think to myself, "I don't remember that happening. I don't remember that happening." So it's interesting to me, but I never really had the desire to sit down and watch the whole thing. And I probably won't sit down and watch the whole thing [at the 20th anniversary] either.