IT WAS 2:45 a.m. on Sept. 7 when Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.
finally left Camden Yards with the title of baseball's greatest
Iron Man. As he headed through the tunnel from the clubhouse to
the parking lot, Ripken high-fived a couple of stadium cleanup
workers, then hopped into the backseat of a chauffeured Lincoln
Town Car with his wife, Kelly. Three policemen on motorcycles
escorted them out of the lot, roaring past a cluster of
screaming fans and one quiet old gentleman holding a sign that
read: CAL, THANK YOU FOR SAVING BASEBALL.
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 1995 issue
Thus ended one of the most stirring nights--make that two
nights--in major league history. In the 24-hour period in which
Ripken tied and then broke New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig's
record of 2,130 consecutive games played, he was repeatedly
hailed as a man who, through his passion for playing baseball to
the best of his substantial ability, stood as a testament to the
ideals of a game--if not all sports--gone sour.
On the nights of Tuesday, Sept. 5, and Wednesday, Sept. 6,
sellout crowds in excess of 46,000 at Camden Yards continually
stood as one and cheered his 14-year achievement. Teammates past
and present, opponents, umpires, celebrities and dignitaries
shook his hand, slapped him on the back or hugged him; all the
while a proud family looked on, nearly in awe of the man
Among those delivering best wishes in person were President
Clinton and Vice President Gore and baseball greats Joe
DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson. After
each of the two games, Ripken was escorted back onto the field
to accept tokens of appreciation from admirers and teammates.
But through all the ovations and expressions of joy, he remained
ever so humble, and steeled himself against the currents of
emotion, even though the eyes of all around him spilled tears.
While Ripken's eclipsing of Gehrig's milestone, inexorable as it
became, may have lacked the drama of Bobby Thomson's shot heard
'round the world or even Kirk Gibson's blast in the 1988 World
Series, the magnificent tribute he was paid was every bit the
equal of any previous outpouring of affection for a sports
And the future Hall of Famer responded in kind, as both an
athlete and a beloved Oriole. In helping Baltimore to
back-to-back wins over the California Angels, he had three hits
on Tuesday and two more on Wednesday, including a home run each
night to give him three in three straight games (the first time
he'd done that in more than four years). And at the height of
the celebration--when consecutive game number 2,131 became
official and the crowd could not contain its enthusiasm--Ripken
returned the affection by trotting around the Camden Yards
warning track and slapping the outstretched hands of the adoring
"It was like an out-of-body experience," Cal said afterward.
"It's like when your wife is having a baby. You're watching and
thinking, This can't be me. This can't be my wife. This can't be
my child. You think it's happening to someone else. These last
two nights, I kept thinking, This can't be happening to me. This
has to be someone else."
The season-long celebration of Ripken's march past Gehrig
gathered momentum in earnest on Sunday, Sept. 3, during a game
with the Seattle Mariners at Camden Yards. When the number
draped on the side of the warehouse beyond the rightfield wall
changed from 2,127 to 2,128 after the fifth inning--the point at
which the game became official--every Mariner player stood on the
top step of the visiting dugout and joined the sellout crowd in
The show of respect by an opposing team continued the following
day in the opener of a three-game series with the Angels. "I was
in the on-deck circle when that banner came down in the fifth
inning," said California second baseman Rex Hudler after
Monday's game became number 2,129 in a row. "I almost started to
weep. I had to grab myself and say, 'Hud, not now, man. The next
two days are for crying.' I can't imagine playing a week
straight, let alone 13 years straight."
The next day fans began milling around Camden Yards at 7 a.m. in
anticipation of the record-tying game that would start more than
12 hours later. Eight-year-old E.J. Payne from Westminster,
Md., who wore a Mohawk haircut (Oriole orange, with a thin buzz
of black hair on each side of his head bearing the inscription
cal 8) to Tuesday and Wednesday's games, was one of many kids
who played hooky. "How could I go to school on days like this?"
Angel infielder Rene Gonzales, who played for the Orioles from
1987 to '90, said, "I was here when he had the
consecutive-innings streak going [8,243, which ended in '87]. I
knew he'd get this record. This was nothing for him. He's an
Ripken's homer that night was one of six hit by the Orioles in
an 8-0 victory over the Angels. He hit his off reliever Mark
Holzemer, who was 12 years old when the Streak began on May 30,
1982. Ripken joked after the game that the special-edition
baseballs used in the Tuesday and Wednesday games--they had
orange stitching and his name on the cover--were "juiced."
That juice was nothing compared to the adrenaline surging
through the stands. When the number on the warehouse changed
from 2,129 to 2,130, the fans cut loose with an ovation that
stopped play for five minutes, 20 seconds. After Ripken waved
his hat to the crowd, he looked over at Kelly, who was in the
front row of the stands with tears in her eyes. He patted his
heart to signify how hard it was pounding. "There were several
moments when I had to hold back tears," he said later.
In postgame ceremonies Cal and Kelly were seated in chairs on
the field for more than 30 minutes while the likes of actor Tom
Selleck, San Antonio Spur center David Robinson and local legend
Johnny Unitas brought them gifts. But the most moving
presentation was made by Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Jim Gott,
who, as a rookie, was the starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue
Jays against the Orioles on May 30, 1982. Gott had allowed one
hit in six innings for his first major league victory that day,
and he had kept the game ball. But when he walked onto the field
Tuesday night, he gave it to Ripken, who was floored by the
gesture. "You don't have to do this," Ripken told him.
"I want to," Gott said.
When Ripken undressed at his locker three hours after the game,
two attendants stood by tagging and bagging every piece of
clothing he peeled off, preparing them for delivery to trophy
cases at the Baseball Hall of Fame and elsewhere. "I'm keeping
this," Cal said, flipping his protective cup into his locker. He
finally left the clubhouse at 1:48 a.m.
After years of blocking out distractions created by the Streak,
Ripken finally began to feel overwhelmed, and he had trouble
sleeping and eating in the week leading up to the
record-breaking game. He barely slept at all the night before
number 2,131. "I was sweating so much the sheets and the
comforter were soaking wet," Ripken said. He thought he might
have a virus, but he decided it was a case of "nerves."
After he finally dozed off, Ripken awoke at 8:05 and scrambled
to take his five-year-old daughter, Rachel, to her first day of
kindergarten. Later that day he was able to catch a nap.
At the ballpark Jeff Huson, a journeyman infielder in his first
year with the Orioles, was thrilled about starting that night. A
lefthanded hitter who platoons at third base with Jeff Manto,
Huson had been tracking the Angels' pitching rotation for three
weeks, trying to figure out if a righthander might be starting
against Baltimore on Sept. 6. "I thought I had no chance,
because the Angels had four lefthanders in their rotation," he
said. "Then I saw Shawn Boskie [a righthander] come off the
disabled list. Then I saw on SportsCenter last Friday night that
he would be starting on Sept. 6. I jumped in the air and said,
The umpires working the Angel series were just as excited. Al
Clark had been scheduled to be behind home plate for the
record-setting game, but out of respect for partner Larry
Barnett, who has umpired for 29 years in the American League, he
offered to adjust the umpiring rotation so that Barnett would
call balls and strikes Wednesday night. Barnett gladly accepted.
"It's the biggest thing that he has come across, and the biggest
thing for me in 20 years [of umpiring]," said Clark, who was
happy to make the calls at third base for number 2,131 after
working the plate the night before. He had umpired in four
no-hitters, Nolan Ryan's 300th victory, two All-Star Games, two
World Series and the 1978 playoff between the New York Yankees
and the Boston Red Sox, but Clark said, "This is huge.
Three-hundred-game winners, 500-homer men happen; the World
Series is played most every year. This will never happen again."
In the stands behind home plate was Cal's brother Billy, a
former Oriole who spent the 1995 season with the Cleveland
Indians' Triple A team in Buffalo. Billy had been given
permission to leave his team for two days even though it meant
missing Buffalo's opening postseason game. After sitting in the
family's private box high above the field on Tuesday, he moved
into the front row of seats for the historic occasion. "I wanted
to sit down near the field," he said. "Tonight, I was more in
The game was tied 1-1 when Cal prepared to bat in the fourth
inning. Billy called to him, and Cal walked from the on-deck
circle and shook his brother's hand. "Way to go,'' Billy told
him. ("What else would I say?" Billy said later. "I didn't have
to tell him how proud I am. He knows. When he came over to shake
my hand, it really pumped me up.") After outfielder Bobby
Bonilla homered to break the tie, Ripken crushed a 3-0 pitch
from Boskie deep into the leftfield seats.
"I will never forget that," Billy said. "I shook his hand before
he hit that homer."
Bryan Johnson, a fan sitting in the seats in left with a broken
finger on his right hand, caught the ball with his left hand. He
was offered thousands of dollars for the souvenir, but he said
he wanted Cal to have it--and he wanted nothing in return. (Cal
later presented Johnson with an autographed bat and ball.)
No one who was at the game, or even watched it on TV, will ever
forget what occurred a short while later, following the top of
the fifth, when the game became official. Play was stopped at
9:20, the song Day One poured through the P.A., black and orange
balloons were released, and everyone in the Oriole bullpen raced
in to stand at the dugout with Ripken and the rest of the team
when the number on the warehouse banner changed from 2,130 to
2,131. The cheer that went up was perhaps the loudest in the
history of Baltimore sports. A fan raised his sign to the sky:
TODAY, I CONSIDER MYSELF THE LUCKIEST FAN ON THE FACE OF THE
With Whitney Houston's One Moment in Time booming out of the
stadium speakers and several Oriole players wielding their
videocameras, Ripken emerged from the dugout, took off his cap
and waved thanks to the fans. Then he walked over to the front
row of seats behind home plate and hugged his wife and his two
children, Rachel and Ryan, 2. He took off his jersey and his cap
and presented them to his kids. "These are for you," he said.
"That's when I lost it," said Huson. "Every father knew what
Kelly cried. "That's when he showed how much he loves us," she
There were four more curtain calls before Bobby Bonilla and
first baseman Rafael Palmeiro pulled Ripken out of the dugout
and made him circle the warning track. As he ran along the
track, Ripken slapped hands with fans who were leaning over the
rail. When he got to centerfield, he jumped, balanced on his
stomach at the top of the fence and high-fived a few fans who
had leaped from their seats in the bleachers. Along the way he
waved and pointed at specific fans he recognized. When he got to
the third base coaching box, he was intercepted by Barnett and
Clark, both of whom shook his hand.
Then he ran to the top step of the visitors' dugout, where all
the California players were still standing and clapping. He
shook everyone's hand and hugged several Angels, including
hitting coach Rod Carew, Gonzales and manager Marcel Lachemann.
Catcher Jorge Fabregas, who was behind the plate, went over to
shake Ripken's hand. "I was just so, so honored to be out
there,'' he said.
Play was stopped for 22 minutes. If there was a more joyful 22
minutes in baseball, no one could remember it.
After the game (the Orioles hit four home runs and won again,
4-2) the club held another presentation ceremony. With Kelly and
his parents, Cal Sr. and Vi, standing with him, Ripken was
honored in speeches and with gifts, including a new Chevrolet
sport-utility vehicle, a mahogany pool table and a 2,131-pound
landscape rock with 2131 chiseled into it.
Finally, after words of praise from Gehrig's former teammate Joe
DiMaggio, Ripken read the speech he had written himself. His
closest friends didn't expect him to get through it without
crying, but he did. He thanked four people in particular--his
parents, former teammate Eddie Murray and Kelly--for making his
success possible. The closest his voice came to cracking was
when he turned to address Kelly and said, "You, Rachel and Ryan,
you are my life."
In making it through the speech, he made it through the
week--rising to the occasion as DiMaggio, Aaron and the
Robinsons always had. "I've never witnessed anything like that,"
Cal Sr. said. "He had a tremendous burden, and he handled it so
well. I just marveled at how he was able to do everything he did
[during the fifth-inning celebration] and could still go out and
do what he did in the game."
At 2:15 a.m., tireless as ever, Cal Jr. was the life of the
party at his locker, showing friends and associates the gifts he
had received, such as a book, Baseball: The Presidents' Game,
signed that night by President Clinton; flowers; two bottles of
champagne from Wally Joyner and David Howard of the Kansas City
Royals; and a couple of portraits painted by admirers. Finally,
Ripken and his friends gathered it all up and headed for the
car. "This whole day has been an out-of-body experience," he
But he couldn't have been watching someone else. No one else
could have done what he did.