The record that was never going to be broken was broken at 9:19 last night, Cal Ripken walking from his shortstop position to the dugout to a place few ballplayers reach, that place called immortality.
The evening was 4 1/2 innings old, the game was official, and the new number on the warehouse wall behind the right-field fence at Camden Yards is now the same as the number in the record book, 2,131, most consecutive games played. No kidding, no asterisk, no reason to stop.
The crowd begin cheering the new Iron Person and they wouldn’t stop. He climbed back out of the dugout and waved, over and over and over. The cheers only grew. After 15 or so minutes, waving, smiling, sitting, shrugging, Ripken left the dugout and made a sharp right turn.
He was about to begin five of the most remarkable minutes ever seen on a baseball field. He walked and trotted down the right-field foul line, waving at the fans. Cut across the outfield and high-fived a few ushers who were standing on the warning track. A few hands reached out of the bleachers, and Ripken slapped them. Somebody threw a cap on the grass and he tossed it back.
He continued his lap, moving into left field. Now he was slowing down, slapping many more hands. The walk continued along the left-field stands, handshakes, hugs, slaps. He reached the Angels’ dugout and shook hands or hugged every single one of them. He stopped near the Orioles’ dugout to kiss his son and daughter and then disappeared into the dugout. Where he grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat from his face.
The crowd wouldn’t stop, of course. So he came back on the field, waving. And threw the towel into the first row. The delay lasted 23 minutes.
History was made, and not a minute too soon. The truth is, for the first 3 1/2 innings, history was awfully dull. The game was painfully slow and the crowd didn’t seem to be paying attention. There wasn’t enough electricity in the fine brick ballyard to toast a bagel.
And then Bobby Bonilla smacked a home run to put the Orioles a run ahead in the fourth. The crowd liked that.
The next batter was Ripken. He watched three balls go by, and the color man on local radio, a newcomer named Bill Clinton, predicted, “If he throws it down the middle, he’ll swing at it.”
Well, Ripken swung. And sent the baseball well into the left-field seats, his third homer in three games (not a record). The night before, it was a fly ball that just cleared the wall. The Tuesday crowd responded with two minutes of noise, and their hero came out of the dugout, responding with an honest wave.
When he sat down again, it was next to outfielder Brady Anderson. Who proved how good a friend he was by telling Ripken, “I didn’t think that ball had a chance.”
“The baseball gods helped it out,” Ripken said.
When that game became official, a part of baseball lore, Ripken left the dugout three times to acknowledge the five-minute standing what else? ovation. And it suddenly occurred to you: Cal Ripken Jr. is having a very good time.
The lap told us that. So did the 14 years, the 2,131 games that preceded it.
The night before the night he would break the record that would never be broken, Cal Ripken spent 20 minutes in an interview room under the Camden Yards stands. The 40 minutes before that were spent in a ceremony on the field, sharing a pair of upholstered stools with his wife, Kelly. David Robinson of the Spurs gave him NBA basketballs and Bonnie Blair delivered a speed-skating outfit and Pam Shriver had a signed poster from players at the U.S. Open. Johnny Unitas, still a god in this town, handed Ripken his Colts jersey. Hank Aaron dropped off his No. 44. Each article of clothing was admired and then carefully folded by one Ripken or another. That’s right, kids, being neat is very important to Cal Ripken.
Anyway, a full 90 minutes after the streak-tying game ended, when he should have been out of the shower and all through singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and on the way home, Ripken was still in the interview area, wearing his No. 8, telling us how thrilled he was to watch Aaron walking toward him.
“If you’re a baseball fan, if you love baseball like I do,” Ripken said, “you appreciate everyone’s accomplishments. And I think everyone in the stands felt exactly the same way I did (when Aaron came out). How can you hit so many home runs? There’s not that much time in a career.”
So you know he was thrilled when Gehrig’s teammate, Joe DiMaggio, said a few sweet words after last night’s game.
THEN AGAIN, Ripken’s a ballplayer, pure and simple. It’s not hard to believe that last night’s final score, the Orioles winning, 4-2, gave him a bigger thrill. That brought the Orioles to eight games under .500. They expected to do a lot better this season but winning, it turns out, is harder than walking out to shortstop every single day for 14 years.
This is Cal Ripken’s idea of hell: a lineup card without his name on it. He lives to play, to play every game, and now nobody has played more games in a row.