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  History, Fans Embrace Ripken in 2,131st Game

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
September 7, 1995

BALTIMORE, SEPT. 6 — After 10 minutes, the cheers had not begun to subside. No matter how many curtain calls Cal Ripken took or how many fireworks exploded on the roof of Oriole Park at Camden Yards tonight, it was simply not enough. Not after the top of the fifth inning, when Ripken had just, officially, played in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gerhig's monumental record that had stood since 1939.

Seeing Ripken present his jersey and cap to his wife and two small children brought enormous waves of warm applause, including cheers from the president and vice president of the United States. Also, the throng at Camden Yards was tickled to see the T-shirt that Ripken wore under his uniform, which carried the message: "2130-plus. Hugs and Kisses for Daddy."

"See, Daddy's wearing my shirt," said 5-year old Rachel, who was driven to her first day of school this morning by an extremely tired, but dutiful, dad.

So, realizing that more — much more — was required to make this moment of celebration worthy of Ripken's 13-plus-season feat, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and the rest of the Baltimore Orioles pushed their shortstop out of the dugout and sent him on a lap around the perimeter of the ballpark. He'd never have done it on his own. Baseball can say a deep thanks that others forced the scene to happen. Because it was the tops.

Ripken shook the ballgirl's hand and then a security cop's big paw as he passed under the huge illuminated sign on the B&O Warehouse, which said everything that mattered: "2131." He leaped to slap the hands of bleacherites. He stopped at the bullpen to grab Elrod Hendricks's arm in both his hands to thank the coach he's known since he was a child. He noticed a fan drop his cap on the warning track and went back to pick it up and return it. The umpires threw their arms around him and every California Angel who didn't shake his hand actually grabbed Ripken in a bear hug. And he hugged the Orioles clubhouse attendant, Butch, whom Cal has befriended with mock punches and pranks for years.

Golfer Hale Irwin ran around the 18th green in victory at the 1990 U.S. Open. It took seconds. He slapped the hands of strangers. Ripken's circuit of Camden Yards took 10 minutes because every time he'd started to jog, he see another old friend in some part of the stands and have to return for a greeting.

A sign in the stands said: "We consider ourselves the luckiest fans on the face of the earth. Thanks Cal."

For 22 minutes 15 seconds, such folks as President Clinton, Vice President Gore and even Joe DiMaggio seemed like extraneous afterthoughts.

Maybe baseball deserves Cal Ripken. Maybe it doesn't. The old game, taking a standing eight-count for the past year, was presented with an incomparably rejuvenating celebration of the sport tonight.

Ripken did it with his bat — hitting a home run for the third consecutive game. But he did it just as much with his heart. He melted this park with his beaming smile and his instant recognition of people, great and small, in every part of the park. No wonder that games in baseball, all across America, were stopped so that fans and players alike could give a standing ovation.

Ripken the ballplayer didn't do badly tonight either.

When Ripken celebrated his 2,129th straight game with a home run on Sunday, it was memorable. When he punctuated his 2,130th consecutive game with another home run on Tuesday, it was thrilling. However, when Ripken homered again tonight in the fourth inning — a signature, crackling line drive over the Crown sign in the left field corner — it was an almost ridiculous command performance. You can't do that on cue in batting practice.

After reaching the summit of Mount Gehrig here on Tuesday, Ripken truly planted his solitary flag atop one of baseball's loftiest peaks tonight.

In sports, records are measured in many ways: by inches and split seconds, by numbers of home runs or touchdowns. However, the Gehrig record came to hold a special symbolic place in American games because it was calibrated in years. Until Ripken's arrival, no one had come within five years of Gehrig.

Like a climber who does nothing more spectacular than place each piton higher than the last, Ripken finally got to the top of a mountain which, for more than a half century, had been considered unscalable. Tonight, the sublime and the mundane were combined in a way almost everyone could comprehend: The sports world honored a man whose "impossible" feat was that he hadn't taken a sick day since May 30, 1982.

In the Oriole clubhouse before the game, Ripken told Clinton that all he did was show up for work everyday and do something he enjoyed."This is the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I'll ever have,"added Ripken to the president."It's like somebody else is in your shoes."

Later, on national television, the president praised Ripken for combining "talent and joy with old-fashioned hard work. "Then, in words that proved prescient within the hour, he added, "I think the game last night and tonight are going to do a lot to help America fall back in love with baseball."

To complete the linkage between Gehrig and Ripken, DiMaggio participated in postgame ceremonies. Thus, the Yankee Clipper, a teammate of the Iron Horse, bestowed authenticity on Ripken — the reserved craftsman who doesn't even have a nickname.

"Wherever my old teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I'm sure he's tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken,"said DiMaggio as postgame ceremonies stretched past midnight with the park still full to the top rows.

Ripken himself said at the conclusion of the ceremony:"I know that if Lou Gehrig is looking down on tonight's activities, he isn't concerned about someone playing one more consecutive game than he did. Instead, he's viewing tonight as just another example of what is good and right about the great American game."

This entire night resembled an all-star gala as much as a baseball game with 600 reporters on hand and special edition memorabilia spewing from concession stands. Even the balls used in the game were special commemorative souvenirs — thus radically enhancing their value and leading to extremely spirited competition for foul balls. In contrast to the commercial, carnival atmosphere, one bona fide charity angle — partly inspired by Ripken — elevated the affair; one-game-only, $5,000-a-person box seats were erected, with $1 million of the proceeds going to Johns Hopkins University to study Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Around midnight after Game 2,130, Ripken allowed himself his very truly introspective reflections of this entire Streak season. "I'm looking forward to {setting the record}," he said. "And I'm looking forward to the end of it, too, to be honest. . . . The last few days have been an eternity. Every time you look at the clock, it seems to move more slowly. . . . It's time to celebrate it and enjoy it. But I hope {the hoopla} doesn't linger on. . . .

"I've been very achy the last few weeks. Maybe it's the nerves. It's been a difficult time. It's been tough to eat. It's been tough to sleep. . . . Usually, I sleep like a rock. But there's a switch in my body that won't turn off. . . . It's been exhausting."

Game 2,131 also was exhausting, but in the best sense. Like Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, this night of baseball-as-it-should-be someday may be seen as a turning point in baseball's troubled marriage with its public.

Whatever the future holds, this night clearly showed that the streaks of Gehrig and Ripken have taken parallel paths, leading to the same place. Both began as purely athletic achievements. Yet, eventually, both streaks became excuses for a nation to talk not about baseball but about the quality of the men. Gehrig said goodbye to his sport in one of the game's saddest, but most ennobling, moments. Tonight, with his warning track tour, Ripken greeted an entire ballpark, and embraced a whole nation of fans, in one of the game's most joyous evenings.

© Copyright 1995 Washington Post Company

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