Before streak came Ripken the pinch runner

SIDELIGHT

August 01, 1994|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Cal Ripken stood next to second base before the start of the fifth inning of yesterday's game. The fans cheered as Prince's "1999" blared from the speakers. The JumboTron showed highlights from Ripken's career.

He didn't think about the significance of the streak. He didn't think about playing in his 1,999th consecutive game. He just tipped his cap to the fans and went back to his position.

"I really don't know what it means or what it stands for," Ripken said after the game. "I'm just someone who has always grinded it out."

The strike is likely to stall Ripken's consecutive-games streak at 2,010 this season. The grind will end, at least for a little while.

It all began after the last baseball strike, when rosters expanded and the Orioles called up Ripken and left-handed pitcher Jeff Schneider from Rochester.

Ripken found out he had made it to the big leagues while at Rochester's Silver Stadium. He had just stepped off a bus from Syracuse. The following day Ripken would be in Baltimore.

He made his first major-league appearance on Aug. 10, 1981, the first game after the strike -- not as a third baseman or a shortstop, but as a pinch runner.

He was standing on second base that night at Memorial Stadium, thinking about how different the ballpark seemed from the summers that he had spent there with his father, former Orioles coach Cal Sr.

Ripken Jr. had played nearly four years in rickety, poorly lit, minor-league band boxes.

"Up to that point, I had played in minor-league stadiums with light poles that didn't make it up to the sky," he said.

Memorial Stadium now looked gigantic.

"It seemed like you were in a huge stadium," Ripken said. "It was a big stage."

And Ripken was on it, playing the role of the hero.

With the Orioles tied at 2 with the Kansas City Royals in the bottom of the 12th inning, Ripken pinch ran for Ken Singleton, who had led off with a double. After Eddie Murray was walked intentionally, John Lowenstein singled to right field.

Ripken scored the winning run. He did not expect to make a career out of pinch running, but that night it made him feel like part of the team.

"I certainly felt like I had helped us win," Ripken said. "I scored the winning run, which probably anybody could have done at that point."

Ripken did not have a spectacular 1981 season. He hit just .128, collecting five hits in 39 at-bats. But he did not go back to Rochester.

Schneider, who was called up with Ripken, was not so lucky. The night after Ripken's pinch-running debut, Schneider gave up a grand slam to Royals second baseman Frank White.

Schneider made 11 appearances that season, but never made it back to the majors.

Ripken did. The anonymity of 1981 ended in 1982, when he stopped pinch running and started playing third base and shortstop. The streak began on May 30.

He has been at the center of the Orioles' success ever since. Even after 1,999 consecutive games, Ripken still enjoys being on the big stage.

"The ovation was pretty awesome," he said. "I guess I can't come up with a better word, it was awesome.

"Standing out there with the cheering, knowing it was for me, knowing we couldn't celebrate the 2,000th game at home, it was a super great feeling. I don't know any other way to describe it."

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