The number itself evokes awe. It’s one every Baltimore sports fan has committed to memory — Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,131 consecutive baseball games, an inspiring mark reached 25 years ago.
While the message of most sports records begins and ends with the impressive digits — whether home runs or touchdowns or even championships — there is something far more profound woven into the 2,131 mark.
“The moment was larger than baseball. It was larger than Cal,” said ESPN announcer Chris Berman, who called the record-breaking game on Sept. 6, 1995 when Ripken eclipsed legendary New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, whose record had stood for 56 years.
“To me, it represented America and a work ethic ideal,” Berman continued. “It represented packing a lunch and going to work even though you don’t feel good, whether you’re a baseball player or a coal miner. That’s what it represented then and what it still represents. The enormity was unparalleled by anything else I’ve seen.”
The Orioles played the California Angels that night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The ballpark was just 3 years old and still a novel gem of retro sports architecture.
However, baseball was wounded. The previous season had been cut short by a players’ strike, and the 1994 World Series had been canceled. The 1995 season began with uncertainty as labor problems persisted and MLB threatened to go ahead with replacement players. Once the players’ union and owners came to an agreement, spring training was truncated and the new schedule was for just 144 games.
“Baseball wasn’t very popular just then, and baseball players weren’t very popular,” Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald said. McDonald’s locker was next to Ripken’s.
“People will have a hard time relating to hitting a baseball 450 feet or throwing a baseball 95 mph, and certainly have a hard time relating to players making a million dollars a year,” McDonald added. “So for people to see Cal Ripken Jr. go out there every day, that was something they could relate to. That was getting up every morning, putting on your boots and work clothes and heading out to work.”
Phil Regan was the first-year Orioles manager who had the misfortunate of taking over the team under the problematic circumstances that had befallen MLB. He calls the night Ripken broke the consecutive games record “the thrill of a lifetime.”
Regan managed the Orioles for just the ’95 season and by 1997, he was the pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs, for whom Sammy Sosa was belting out home runs at a furious clip. Mark McGwire was doing the same for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1998, the two combined for 136 homers.
“There was all this talk about how Sammy and McGwire hit all these home runs and that saved baseball,” Regan said. “I don’t think so. I think it was Cal and that record. Taken all together, Cal and his dad, Cal’s love of the game — that’s what I think saved baseball and that’s why to this day he’s revered.”
McDonald, who pitched for Baltimore from 1989-1995, said Ripken understood his pursuit of the record could be a salve for a damaged game.
“About a month or two before it happened, Junior really embraced it,” McDonald said, using his own nickname for Ripken. “He believed it would bring people back to baseball.”
“A Magical Interaction”
As far as Baltimore sports memories are concerned, the record-breaking night 25 years ago rivals any of the city’s team championships.
“Everything about that night was fairy tale magical,” Ripken said. “The way it unfolded, no one could have written a script for it to come out any better than it did.”
In the two previous games against California, Ripken had hit home runs.
President Bill Clinton was in attendance. So were Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, a link to former teammate Gehrig, and other baseball greats. Ripken’s father Cal Sr., mother Vi and brother Billy, who had played for the Orioles, looked on proudly.
Ripken came to bat in the bottom of the fourth inning and launched his third homer in as many games to help the Orioles to a 3-1 lead. (Baltimore eventually won, 4-2.) When the Angels failed to score in the top of the fifth, the game became official.
That’s when a baseball game became an unforgettable, heart-tugging, sentimental celebration of core values, such as dependability, determination, persistence, sacrifice and teamwork.
As the last numeral on the warehouse that counted Ripken’s march to history was about to register 2,131, Berman intoned, “Let it be said that No. 8, Cal Ripken Jr., has reached the unreachable star.”
It would be the last thing anyone said on the broadcast for almost all of the next 22-plus minutes.
In this case, silence was truly golden as perhaps the most authentically affectionate fan salute in American sports history played out.
Faced with a deafening chorus of cheers and applause, Ripken was finally coaxed from the dugout by teammates Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla to begin the memorable counter-clockwise lap around the ballpark recognizing fans, shaking hands, exchanging smiles and words.
“I didn’t want to make any more of it. It’s a baseball game,” Ripken said explaining his reluctance to leave the dugout. “I said ‘thank you’ a number of times [around the dugout area] and people kept clapping. You can tell that at first I’m like, ‘OK. Let’s go and I’ll get around this stadium pretty quickly.’ But soon, you’re looking into people’s faces and into their eyes and you recognize some and you even know some names of people who had been coming to the ballpark for a while. And the celebration turned into a magical interaction.”
There is a moment when Ripken — perhaps for the only time in his career — puts aside the primacy of the game he’s playing and embraces a moment that transcended sport.
“In that moment, no one in the ballpark felt like a stranger to me,” Ripken said. “It felt like everybody was an extension of your family and friends. I’m a little bit reserved and introverted so I’m not one to really jump out there. But I was comfortable as can be reaching out to people, talking to people and shaking hands.”
One person that Ripken wanted to make contact with was his father. Cal Sr. and the Orioles had parted ways a few years earlier after his decades of service as a coach and manager in the organization, and Cal Jr. wasn’t even sure his dad would attend. But he did.
“He was sitting up in my box and at one point during the celebration, I looked up there and caught his eye,” the Hall of Fame shortstop said. “He wasn’t the type to express his feelings in words … and he was hard to read sometimes. But in that moment, there were a thousand words in his eyes.”
Meanwhile, the broadcast silence continued.
“We get paid to speak and we wound up winning an Emmy for saying nothing,” Berman joked. “So there’s a message in there somewhere.”
Berman’s broadcast partner that night, Buck Martinez, said the evident emotion sweeping through the ballpark didn’t need words.
“There were tears in our eyes, too. … Sometimes broadcasters forget that there are pictures and you can let the pictures tell the story,” Martinez said. “That was certainly the case that night.”
The likes of Ripken are unlikely to pass our way soon for other reasons, Martinez said.
“After games, he’d stay and sign autographs until everyone who wanted one got one,” Martinez said. “You’ll never see that again.”
“This Will Be Forever”
Ripken’s streak continued until Sept. 20, 1998, when he voluntarily sat out after 2,632 consecutive games played. His bond with fans is part and parcel of the man and the athlete. It explains why even casual baseball fans think of him so warmly. At the same time, he is gratified to hear about their experiences.
“The most memorable thing about the streak … was that people shared all their own streaks with me,” Ripken said. “So it was this theme of people relating to the idea that there’s something that you love, or something that’s important to you, or your job or school. People might tell me about perfect attendance at school or how they worked 30 years at a job and never missed a day, not one day. Sometimes people told me they didn’t take vacations. But whatever it was, there was a source of pride as people told me about their own streak, which I thought was pretty cool.”
Of all the “streaks,” the one that Ripken remembers most fondly is that of Ernie Tyler. Tyler was the umpire attendant at Oriole Park.
“He hadn’t missed a home game in 31 years. And you know when he finally missed a game? When I went into the Hall of Fame,” Ripken said. “He came to the Hall of Fame and missed a home game for the Orioles. So that was pretty moving.”
Ripken and Gehrig will forever be linked — the Yankees’ “Iron Horse” and the Orioles’ “Iron Man.” Certainly, the endurance records they both established do that, but beyond the numbers there is another shared trait. The quality of the men matched the lofty standard of their accomplishments.
“People would ask me when I was still playing, ‘What do I want my legacy to be,'” Ripken said. “My feeling was there will be plenty of time when you’re sitting in your rocking chair to look back, but right now you’re playing. Well, now it’s funny because you are sitting in your rocking chair looking back and in some ways it feels like that was a different life. But the memories still evoke the same feelings you had when you went through it.”
Indelible images and enduring inspiration were gifts everybody who was at Oriole Park on that remarkable night took with them.
“This will be forever,” Berman said, “and we were lucky to be there.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles; Scott Clarke/ESPN Images