I doubt I'll ever see anything more memorable on a playing field than the pageantry of Cal Ripken surpassing Lou Gehrig as baseball's all-time iron man on Sept. 6, 1995. It was an achievement based on nothing more complicated than showing up for work, and for months I had figured the record-setting moment would be a dull anticlimax. But Ripken, with the warmth and spontaneity of his Camden Yards victory lap, made it work, and made people like baseball again.
Still, it isn't the victory lap or the endless Camden Yards ovations or the streak-week home runs that I remember most vividly about the buildup and aftermath of Ripken's milestone. Strangely enough, the picture that sticks in my mind comes from an airplane ride the morning after the record-setting game.
I was bleary-eyed the morning after, not only from the months of buildup and the record-tying and record-setting games, but also from the overnight-construction traffic jam at 2 a.m. on the way home from Baltimore. The Orioles played in Cleveland the next night, and I got on a plane at BWI and started to doze off.
Then the murmurs began. It quickly made its way to every passenger that Ripken was about to get on the plane from a car being driven onto the tarmac. And when he boarded, virtually every person on the plane stood and cheered.
It isn't often that you see a standing ovation on an airplane. I never got to see Elvis or the Beatles up close, so I figured what I was witnessing at that moment was the nearest I had ever come to seeing someone at the absolute height of celebrity. It wouldn't last, and Ripken was relieved it didn't. But that morning, he was the one person that everyone in the country wanted to see and talk to, and practically everyone on that plane walked up to his seat with a shred of paper to be signed.
It continued that night in Cleveland. The Orioles set up a day-after news conference for him before the game. And as he walked toward yet another in a long, long series of get-togethers with media members, he went down a corridor in the bowels of Jacobs Field in which stadium workers were lined up shoulder to shoulder just to get a glimpse of him or say hello. They cheered, too.
Ripken never was completely comfortable with his celebrity. He learned to deal with it, and he made himself enjoy the summer of the streak. But I don't think he ever really liked being so famous. It upset him that, after signing autographs for 1,000 fans until his fingers were sore and covered with ink, the 1,001st person in line almost invariably would call him a jerk for walking away.
In covering Ripken, there were walls to tear down. Trying to interview Ripken if you don't know him well is an exercise in exasperation. Setting up the interview takes longer than conducting it. "What's your angle?" he'll ask. "What do you mean by that question?" "What are you trying to get me to say?"
But once some trust is established, he is smart and engaging and funny. And after covering baseball for nine seasons from 1990 to '98, I realized it was the smaller moments that were the best.
I saw some big ones. The Cal nights. Joe Carter ending the World Series with a home run. Jack Morris pitching 10 shutout innings to win a World Series Game 7. Francisco Cabrera beating the Pirates in the playoffs. Roberto Alomar spitting in John Hirschbeck's face. Bud Selig announcing the cancellation of the World Series. Jeff Maier grabbing the ball out of Tony Tarasco's glove in right field at Yankee Stadium.
But the things that truly were memorable came on a smaller scale. Ripken's airplane ovation and sitting by his locker with the note pad set aside to hear how he really thought baseball and the Orioles should work. Orioles officials having to tell Tim Hulett in the clubhouse at Comiskey Park that his young son had been struck by a car in Baltimore. Andre Thornton movingly eulogizing, in a cramped, steamy auditorium in a tiny Florida town, the two Indians players, Steve Olin and Tim Crews, who died in a spring training boat crash. Brady Anderson, after I'd told him I was leaving the baseball beat in part because it might be nice to actually see my wife sometimes, saying: "Forget your wife. What about me?"
Sports are about moments. But even more so, they are about people, and it's the small moments when the people actually seem real that have been the most memorable to me.
Mark Maske has covered sports for The Washington Post since 1990.
CAPTION: After his record-setting night, Cal Ripken received standing ovation after boarding plane in morning.