Plenty of people can write about Cal Ripken Jr. I can write about Cal as I laid witness to him back in the day, and I don’t exactly speak from a place others do. As Stan “The Fan,” Baltimore’s preeminent Orioles sports talker during all of Cal’s career, I can honestly say that I talked about Cal Ripken and The Streak more than any other human being on the planet.
Sometimes I was right, a lot of times I was wrong, but regardless of my score, Baltimoreans loved — and still love — to talk about Ripken: what made him tick, what made him go on and on like the Energizer bunny.
More times than not, the subjects fans talked about most were streak-related and whether Cal should continue toward Lou Gehrig’s record. Some said Cal should sit, that he wasn’t helping the team. A handful of fans thought Cal should take the day off here and there, that he would be better off for it. Most knew that if this was anyone else, without his streak, the manager would sit Cal down.
On and on this went, week after week, month after month, All-Star break after All-Star break. The talk was there when Earl Weaver managed the team the second time around in 1985-86. Talk of the streak began to bubble during the 1987 season, when Cal Sr. managed the Birds, and it never truly died until Ray Miller, at Cal’s request, wrote out a lineup card near the end of the 1998 season that didn’t have No. 8 penciled in its regular spot.
By this time I had long since ceased to care much about the discussion of whether the streak was good or bad for the Orioles and for Cal. He had broken Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak in 1995, and he broke Sachio Kinugasa’s world mark of 2,215 in June 1997.
But I certainly never got bored of talking about what made Cal tick — mostly because of one play in the hot summer of 1993, when I realized that while Cal may have wanted the streak to continue, he was not going to let The Streak define how he played the game.
What made the nights of Sept. 5 and 6, 1995 so special was how many of the nights building up to Cal’s 2,131st consecutive game were just baseball games.
Nothing special seemed to happen night after night as 500 consecutive games turned into 925 consecutive games, and then 1,375, and then 1,750. The sheer inertia of The Streak took on an inevitability that defied logic.
And so it was with that backdrop that the game at Camden Yards on June 9, 1993 began. The Orioles took the field on that day with Rick Sutcliffe pitching for the O’s against Bob Welch of the Oakland A’s. After Sutcliffe retired the A’s routinely in the top of the first, the Orioles came to the plate against Welch.
Brady Anderson led off and hit into the first out of the inning. Mark McLemore was up next and he singled to center. With one on and one out, Ripken was hit high on his left shoulder by a Welch fastball, an early and intimidating wake-up call. I remember how uncharacteristically upset Cal was about this obvious attempt to brush him back. Hit by the pitch, Cal jumped up and began to trot down to first, jawing some un-Cal like remarks Welch’s way.
As the inning developed, McLemore, who had reached base earlier in the inning, and Ripken moved up to third and second, respectively, on a groundout to third by Harold Baines. … Next up was Mike Devereaux, who lashed a hard line single to right. As Cal took off, I remembered how angry he had been after being hit by the high hard one thrown by Welch.
As Cal rounded third, I sensed that a message was about to be sent. The play was not a normal bang-bang play, because catcher [Terry] Steinbach clearly had the ball, which allowed Cal a clean shot at knocking the ball loose. But Cal’s agenda went beyond knocking the ball loose, and Steinbach just happened to be the wrong guy at the wrong place.
The collision was violent. The ball did not come loose from Steinbach’s grasp, and the inning ended. Steinbach was out for the game, and I learned a lot about Cal watching that half-inning. I realized Cal was unafraid of injury, and the by-product of the streak ending, and simply played the game as hard as he had to at any given time.
I can’t say for sure that nobody ever threw at Cal again. But I know this: much like Ishmael, the narrator in “Moby Dick,” told us the horror the insane quest for the white whale, Steinbach, Welch, the Oakland A’s and anyone who saw that one play passed the word throughout MLB that it was not a smart thing to anger Cal Ripken.
Originally published in “Ripken: From Aberdeen To Cooperstown, A Celebration Of A Hometown Hero” (PressBox, 2007).