Once upon a time, before the pandemic, more than 46,000 people stood shoulder to shoulder in Camden Yards, cheering nonstop as the foremost Oriole trotted around the ballpark, slapping hands with fans in the stands and hugging players with open arms. Fancy that.
On Sept. 6, 1995, in a game against the California Angels, Cal Ripken Jr. set a mark for the ages, playing in his 2,131st straight game on national television and before a partisan crowd that showered him with a 22-minute standing ovation.
Given COVID-19, Ripken says, “It’s hard to imagine that happening today. But it’s just as hard to believe it happened then.”
Twenty-five years later, the flashpoints of that day are burned in his memory: taking seven curtain calls outside the dugout and tapping his heart each time in response ... locking eyes with his dad in the stands and giving him a thumbs-up ... greeting President Bill Clinton, who grasped his hand and said, “God bless you.”
Ripken’s remembrances are so dear that, until last month, he refused to watch the tape of the game for fear it would blot them out.
“For the longest time, I wanted to preserve the memories I had with my own eyes. I was afraid that if I saw the game as it was, that experience would ruin it,” he says. “The night was so special that I wanted it to be my memories — and I don’t regret having done that.”
A quarter century has passed since Ripken, 35 and an Aberdeen native, stepped onto the home turf and shattered a 56-year-old record that had seemed set in stone: Lou Gehrig’s string of 2,130 consecutive games played. Gehrig, the Hall of Fame first baseman for the New York Yankees, was also 35 and suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — the fatal neurological disease that would one day bear his name — when he benched himself and made headlines in 1939.
Gehrig’s Hall of Fame teammate, a young Joe DiMaggio, was on the field that game, as he was on Ripken’s big night to pay homage to the Iron Man who’d just passed Gehrig, the Iron Horse, in the record books.
“Wherever [Gehrig] is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his hat to you,” DiMaggio told the Orioles shortstop in the postgame celebration.
Ripken’s achievement was “undeniably a monument to the sport,” says John Thorn, official historian for Major League Baseball. “It represents ’a pyramid in Kansas,’ as [writer] George Will once described Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson.”
And while Thorn says he and other modern analysts may question Ripken’s reluctance to ever take a day off during The Streak, there’s no doubt his character summoned up that of the man whose record he surpassed.
“He played his position with integrity and intelligence; that’s what he was all about,” Thorn says. “In that way, he reminds you of Gehrig.”
In hindsight, Ripken says, he never set out to break Gehrig’s record. What drove him was a fierce competitiveness, an indomitable will and the work ethic drummed into him by his late father, Cal Sr., longtime Orioles coach and, for a brief spell, Ripken’s manager.
“Peel everything else away and I was just showing up for work every day and approaching my job the way I thought I should,” he says. “The cool part was that, in the process, that principle [resonated] with the public to the point where everyone shared their streaks with me — like those who never missed a day at the assembly plant, or who’d had perfect attendance in high school.”
Certainly he’d had cause to sit out a few times during The Streak that began May 30, 1982. Three years later, in game No. 444, he tripped over second base and sprained his left ankle but limped through the last six innings of a win over Texas. The day off that followed found Ripken on crutches, but he was back in the lineup for the next one.
“For some reason, he’s a quick healer,” Orioles trainer Richie Bancells said.
In 1992 (No. 1,713), he twisted his right ankle while running out a double but played through it. A year later (No. 1,790), Ripken wrenched his right knee in a bench-clearing brawl against Seattle, considered resting it but, in the end, muddled through.
Just being lifted in mid-game drove him nuts, he recalls. In 1987, having played 8,243 consecutive innings, Ripken was benched in the eighth inning of an 18-3 loss in Toronto. The move left him flustered and tentative.
“I didn’t know how to act or what to feel,” he told The Sun years later. “I felt like I was in a place where I didn’t belong. I began thinking that I may have compromised my integrity by coming out of a game, that I had surrendered myself to the idea that I’d taken the easy way out. I felt I was on the outside looking in — and I didn’t like it.”
The Streak rolled on. In 1990, Ripken played in his 1,308th straight game to pass Everett Scott, a shortstop in the 1920s, for the No. 2 spot behind Gehrig. But only as he neared the record, he says, did the historic achievement get to Ripken.
“I never felt any pressure during The Streak except for the last couple of weeks,” he says. “Then, there were expectations to get to a finish line, and the adrenaline, anxiety and anticipation all manifested themselves a little bit. I didn’t sleep well, and I wasn’t eating right. Approaching 2,130, I felt under the weather, and I had a fever.”
His bat was hotter still. On the night he matched Gehrig’s mark, Ripken banged out three hits, including a home run to help beat the Angels, 8-0. Afterward, he felt curiously at ease.
“There was a tremendous sense of relief once I tied Gehrig’s record because then I knew that 2,131 would happen. It was a foregone conclusion; the pressure was off,” he says.
The next day, a Wednesday, Ripken awoke at his Reisterstown home ... and drove his 5-year-old, Rachel, to her first day of class at St. Paul’s School. Did they speak of The Streak? Certainly not.
“It was all about her day, not mine,” he says.
At the ballpark, things were different. Six hundred reporters followed Ripken’s every move and hung on his every word. Fans wore festive buttons that stated simply, “I was there.” In the pregame locker room, Ripken autographed a bat for Clinton, whose effusive thanks spoke to the Iron Man’s role in rescuing baseball from the brink following a players’ strike in 1994 that had soured fans and paralyzed the game.
“Cal’s streak was the feel-good moment for the sport,” says Michael Gibbons, director emeritus and historian of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. “It was on a par with what Ruth did, when he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1920 [and made home run history] after baseball’s gambling scandal of 1919. Those were two momentous moments for the sport when it absolutely needed it. Plus, Cal was our guy, a native son.”
In retrospect, Ripken says The Streak simply hit its stride at the right time.
“Personally, I don’t feel like I saved baseball,” he says. “After the strike and the [subsequent] lockout in spring training in 1995, people were looking to find something [to champion] in the game. The whole streak thing took you back to the Lou Gehrig time frame, a connection to a different era, when the focus on baseball was about what happened on the field and not on the business side. That’s what people grabbed hold of — and I’m glad I was able to play a role in that.”
What sticks with Ripken most is the almost dreamlike feel of that night when everything coalesced in a kind of pinch-me state.
“It was a surreal, almost storybook atmosphere, the closest thing, I think, to an out-of-body experience,” he says.
In the fourth inning, Ripken sent a 3-0 pitch into the left-field stands, his third home run in three games after taking a batting tip from teammate Mike Mussina, a pitcher. The ball bounced once before being grabbed by Bryan Johnson, of Pasadena.
“I held on to it for dear life,” said Johnson, who “assumed [Ripken] would like the ball.” He presented it to the Orioles star afterward, in return for an autographed jersey and bat.
“We’d probably have given him a car, if he’d asked,” Ripken says.
Half an inning later, when second baseman Manny Alexander squeezed a pop fly for the third out and the game became official, the place exploded. There were fireworks, sparklers, balloons, streamers and blinding illuminated signs that seemed to flash “2,131″ forever.
Seven times, Ripken stepped from the dugout to acknowledge the crowd (”It was getting embarrassing,” he says) before teammates shoved him onto the field to take that iconic, if impromptu, victory lap.
“Nobody could have choreographed that,” he says of the jog around the stadium warning track as the speakers blared “One Moment In Time” by Whitney Houston. “It took the celebration to a much more personal level; all of a sudden, it was one-on-one as I shook hands with fans, slapped high-fives and got a few hugs. I remember embracing [Angels’ star] Rod Carew, a soft-spoken statesman-like guy who’d never shown much emotion before. That was really cool.”
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Then he spotted his father in the family’s luxury box.
“Dad and I connected right there,” Ripken said. “He wasn’t a man of many words — men of his generation didn’t show their emotions near as much as they do now — but when our eyes met and I pointed to him and he pointed back at me, it was like 1,000 words had passed between us.”
Years go by. Ripken turned 60 last week. Last spring, he fought off prostate cancer as earnestly as he did so many fastballs thrown by opposing pitchers. The pandemic, he says, has given him time to reflect on his gritty feat, 13 years in the making and one that went on for 501 more games.
“During COVID time, looking for things to do, I’ve opened a few boxes of keepsakes,” says Ripken, who lives in Annapolis. Inside are souvenir programs, the home run ball, commemorative Coke bottles and the T-shirt his kids gave him that day, which reads, “2,130+, Hugs and Kisses for Daddy.”
Then, teammates presented him with a 2,131-pound landscape rock, which now sits in Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. From Orioles owner Peter Angelos, he received a Chevy Tahoe. Ripken still has it.
Even with a face mask, people recognize him in public and, 6 feet away, share stories of having attended the historic game.
“I laugh sometimes,” he says. “The ballpark only holds 46,000 people, but at least 200,000 have told me they were there.”