Emotion does number as moment hits home

September 06, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

There was, it turned out, no way to prepare for the night when the deal came down.

Is that incredible? We had 14 years to prepare for the moment when Cal Ripken finally caught Lou Gehrig -- 14 years to wonder what it would look like, what it would feel like, how it would resonate in our hearts -- and still there was no way to prepare for what happened last night at Camden Yards.

No way to prepare for the sight of that number hanging there on the warehouse wall.

No way to prepare for the Orioles, as if on cue from the beaming baseball gods, hitting as many home runs as they have ever hit in a game in Baltimore, marking the night in truly celestial fashion.

No way to prepare for the nightlong wrenching of emotions, the crying and laughing, as Ripken caught Earl Weaver's ceremonial first pitch and signed the ball for him amid a raucous din; took four curtain calls, acknowledged six standing ovations and banged a homer into the left-field seats during the game; then sat through a goofy Hollywood-style post-game tribute that included congratulations from everyone from Joan Jett to Bonnie Blair to David Letterman to Joe Smith.

How, even with 14 years to plan, could anyone prepare for a night of such unfettered emotions, a night so exhilarating and exhausting?

This, after all, was the real thing, real sports history -- not the fleeting, disposable kind of which so much often is made these days, but the lasting kind made of, well, iron. The kind that comes along once in a lifetime and passes through the generations like an inextinguishable torch.

And to think we have to do it all over again tonight, with even more emotion.

Whew.

Of course, we knew this occasion was coming, knew it for months, years even (Cal's health willing), but it still was driven home chillingly and resoundingly, the enormous size of this moment and accomplishment, when the game became official after 4 1/2 innings and the countdown banner on the warehouse dropped at 9:19 p.m., Two-one-three-zero, a number as hallowed as any in sports, looming above the game in right field.

It was impossible not to feel your breath catch and your skin chill.

Impossible not to reflect on how long it had taken Ripken to get here, how much work he had put in, the odds he had stared down, the combining of so many, many factors into this unmatched freak of sport nature.

Impossible not to think about what Mike Mussina had said before the game: "It may be the greatest athletic accomplishment of our lifetime. We're lucky just to be here to be part of it."

Two-one-three-zero, standing tall on the warehouse wall.

It was impossible not to think about the man Ripken was catching on this night, and, in doing so, honoring. Impossible not to think about Gehrig, whose tragic legend has given Ripken's streak its strength, its drama, its reason to live.

Two-one-three-zero.

Finally.

The sellout crowd roared and roared and roared after the number came down, the cheer lasting one minute, three minutes, five minutes, Ripken emerging from the dugout once, twice, three times to acknowledge the cheers.

The players on both benches stood on the top steps of their dugouts, applauding. The California Angels who were out in the field, preparing for the bottom of the fifth inning, pounded their hands into their gloves, applauding.

The umpires stood there applauding. The grounds crew stood there applauding. The relief pitchers hung on the bullpen walls, applauding.

Somewhere in the ballpark, Hank Aaron was standing and applauding. Ernie Banks was standing and applauding. John Unitas was standing and applauding. David Robinson was standing and applauding.

All of baseball, all of sports, was standing and applauding.

On the scoreboard, a live picture of Ripken was superimposed over a picture of a smiling Gehrig, putting the two men eerily together.

The cheers went on and on and on.

And then, as if all that weren't enough to exhaust everyone for the rest of the night, Ripken stepped to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning, having singled twice earlier in the game, and, after tipping his cap to yet another ovation, put a 1-1 pitch from Angels reliever Mark Holzemer into the left-field seats.

And you had to wonder: Who is writing this stuff?

The Orioles were well on their way to an 8-0 win by then, a win that ended, fittingly, with Ripken throwing out the last batter on a grounder to the shortstop. A hail of flashbulbs greeted the moment as the Orioles shook hands in the infield.

After that, the field cleared and Ripken came back out to sit through the post-game tribute, during which he sat in a tall director's chair in front of the pitcher's mound. With Orioles announcer Jon Miller directing the show, one star after another came out to greet Ripken. Jett. Blair. David Robinson. Smith. Aaron. Unitas. Frank Robinson. David Letterman appeared on tape, giving a Top 10 list honoring Ripken.

The crowd roared with laughter and cheered at the parade of stars.

When it was all over a few minutes before midnight, the people filed out as "These Are The Days" played on the public address system. In the bowels of the ballpark, Ripken met the press. Soon, the stadium was empty. And out beyond right field, the 2,130 banner on the warehouse remained lit.

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