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In Cal, We See a Picture of America

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
September 7, 1995

BALTIMORE - Everybody, it seemed, brought a camera. The flashbulbs pop-pop-popped incessantly, dotting the stands like fireflies on this late summer night. You could close your eyes and still see the flashes and imagine yourself adrift inside the Milky Way.

They started the moment Cal took the field Wednesday night, at 7:36, coming out of the dugout alone, like an actor introducing a play, and jogging to second base, kicking it gently, then turning left toward shortstop, toward home, the rest of the team following at a respectful distance, knowing that on this night they were all in the chorus.

The flashes continued as Cal approached the stands to catch the ceremonial first pitches. With the president and vice president of the United States in attendance you'd think they'd throw out the first balls. But on this momentous night Cal chose to have his young children, Rachel, 5, and Ryan, 2, pitch to him. First his daughter threw a ball, then his son. And after each catch Cal returned the ball to his child, and tenderly kissed them in front of God and 46,272. Can you beat that? (Well, after the game, Cal brought out his parents to stand arm-in-arm with him.)

More flashes as Cal got up to bat in the second inning, and popped out to the catcher. More flashes as Cal gobbled up a grounder and started a 6-3 double play in the Angels' fourth. Every step he'd take, every move he'd make, every single play, every word he'd say, they were snapping Cal. Camden Yards twinkled like a Christmas tree in the bottom of the fourth, at 9:08, when Cal got the green light and jacked a 3-0 pitch from Shawn Boskie 380 feet to dead left, giving him homers in the games he caught Lou Gehrig and passed him, a pretty nice quinella.

But that was prologue for what happened at 9:20 when Damion Easley popped up to end the Angels' fifth and Wednesday night's game -- No. 2,131 in a row for Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. -- was declared official. Then the Orioles in the bullpen piled over the wall and headed toward the dugout, and everybody in the joint stood, and the music came up, and up on the warehouse looming over right field the banner "2131" was unfurled, and orange and black balloons were released to float into the Baltimore night. And Cal made his first trip out of the dugout to acknowledge the cheers, which sounded like the roar of an airplane engine. Fireworks were set off around the roof of the stadium, and with the orchestral music playing it looked and sounded like the last scene in "The Natural," which was absolutely chilling.

Then Cal came out of the dugout again, taking off his jersey and handing it to his wife, Kelly. He picked up his son and held him in his arms, then bent down to kiss his daughter, and by then there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Still the applause cascaded down, and the flashbulbs repeated. Three, four, five, six, seven times Cal had to come out from the dugout. Finally there was no way for Cal to escape taking a victory lap around the whole field like he'd won a gold medal, which, indeed he had, and it seemed he shook every hand in the house; so many friends, so much extended family.

For more than 22 minutes the people stood and cheered, and a look of sublime relief passed over Cal's too soon weathered face, knowing this "out of body experience," as he described it to President Clinton, was finally done.

Everybody has their own point of reference for The Streak, something that brings it down to understandable real life scale. Mine is that it started in May 1982, and my daughter was born that December. This week she entered seventh grade.

I look back on those 13 years and I know I'm no slacker; I know I'm as committed to my work and my colleagues as anyone; I love my work. And still I've missed some days to flu, to some virus that put me on my back, to a couple of broken ankles -- and I'm not nearly as exposed to the possibility of injury as Cal is. There are those who denigrate Cal's record, claiming it's simply a matter of a man showing up for work every day. Well, what's more honorable than showing your co-workers, day in and day out, that they can depend on you?

You have to be very good to stick around the big leagues 13 years; only 17 players have remained in the bigs throughout Cal's streak. And you have to be very lucky not to catch the mumps, or wrench your back while moving the sofa, or, like Dave Righetti, miss one game with the preposterous explanation that you were bitten by a lobster at a restaurant! If it's so damn easy to play 2,131 games in a row, how come nobody else has done it? How come among all these millionaires playing now, nobody has more than 235?

The achievement is indisputably remarkable. The confusing part is figuring out what it means. It's not 715 homers or 4,192 hits or 939 stolen bases; it's not specifically about production. There's no big bang in this record -- no circling the bases after crashing a dinger like Hank Aaron, no throwing your fists in the air after rounding first base like Pete Rose, no picking up the base and holding it aloft after another steal like Rickey Henderson. Cal didn't have to post any particular numbers to get this; Wednesday night's dinger was gravy. He just had to show up and do his job. There are no bells and whistles. It's not about power or speed. It's about being there, dependably, resolutely, abidingly. Cal walks onto the field, and that's it; it's quiet and unassuming, like the man who set it.

In a way it's silly to call this "The Streak," for it isn't streaky at all. Mark Fidrych was streaky; he blazed through the sky briefly, crossed the horizon and was gone. What Cal has done is the opposite of streaky, it's about commitment and resolve and endurance. It's rather boring actually. It's enormity is its banality. A flashy athlete would never want this record; it's too common.

I'm not one of those seamheads who rhapsodizes about the elegiac symmetry of the emerald chessboard. But when I look at this record I think I hear the rhythms of America. This celebration of Cal is the fanfare for the common man. Going to work every day, come hell or high water -- building a career, providing for our family like our fathers did before us is something we can all relate to. Staggering physical achievements like hitting four home runs in one game, or rushing for five touchdowns in one game, or scoring 55 points in one game are beyond our grasp. But going to work we can do.

Going to work doesn't require any superhuman skill, or any optimum conditions; you don't need a 44-inch vertical leap, or the thin air of Mexico City or a dry track in Kentucky. In the country that invented the work ethic, going to work is as American as, well, baseball.

If you asked Americans to list those qualities that went into the building of America, qualities that they admired, qualities that made America great, I think way up high they would list: dependability, loyalty, professionalism, endurance and enthusiasm for the work. Words that fit self-effacing, virtuous men like Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig better than they fit flashier men like, say, Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth.

I think America looks at Cal Ripken playing every game, playing them in the same small town where he grew up, putting his hand over his fluttering heart as the ovations pour over him like tidal waves, and signing autographs afterward, and says to itself: "Here is a man I can respect. Here is a man with values I admire." You don't often hear that about professional athletes anymore.

The lineup card from Cal's record 2,131st straight game will be sent to Cooperstown, where it will be followed at an appropriate time by Mr. Ripken himself, a working-class hero.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company

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