Appreciate the night, and the man

September 06, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Magic was in the air. And more than a touch of sentiment. This was a night to be preserved as a special memory, to be put away and cherished as a personal keepsake.

Fittingly enough, a marshmallow Maryland moon lit up the sky, accompanied by a canopy of twinkling stars, but the one that shone the brightest was the man wearing a baseball uniform with Orioles scripted across the front and a block No. 8 on his back.

The name is Ripken, Calvin Edwin, to be specific. His identity has become synonymous with the Baltimore Orioles, one of the game's pioneering teams. Mention Orioles and the immediate association is to Ripken, endowed with physical grace, fielding the shortstop position with style, competency and precision. With a bat in his hands, he drives the ball with authority to all fields and plays with natural instincts that make it all look so easy.

Now he has joined Lou Gehrig by displaying a kind of endurance that tests the powers of comprehension, locked in the same number -- 2,130 consecutive games -- but that's only temporary.

He'll go past Gehrig tonight in what promises to be the most significant occasion in the sports history of Baltimore, going all the way back to the legendary "Old Orioles" with a cast that numbered such Hall of Fame performers as John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson and the first Iron Man, otherwise known known as Iron Man Joe McGinity.

The game last night, an Orioles victory over the California Angels, even offered an appropriate total of runs that coincided with the number Ripken wears on his uniform. The scoreboard showed it was an 8-0 victory, with the guest of honor hitting a home run and gathering two other hits in five trips to the plate.

Ripken, more importantly, had fun. The pressure was gone. The moment had arrived when catching Gehrig was at hand. He enjoyed himself as he caught up to the immortal New York Yankee, holder of a longevity record that for five decades was believed to be beyond the reach of any challenger. Then Ripken, a native son raised in Aberdeen, grew up to play for the Orioles, after working his way through the farm system, and literally wore down the ghost of Gehrig.

It was a momentous event at the ballpark as the Orioles wrapped pre- and post-game ceremonies around Ripken and this, too, was carried out with imaginative planning. For the way he carries himself and the content of his comments, America has come to admire the maturity and credibility of the man.

He's the best thing baseball has going for it. It would be an exaggeration to suggest he is going to save the game the way Babe Ruth's presence and popularity removed the stain of the Black Sox Scandal and lifted the sport out of the gutter in 1920. But Ripken is more than doing his part. He's a baseball treasure, admired as much for his gentlemanly ways as how he acquits himself on the field.

"I never thought anything about the immensity of the streak," he said. "I tried to keep it out of my mind. I didn't want to become preoccupied. There are plenty of people who work harder at jobs that are far more important than what I do. Mine is recreation. What they do, in many cases, is essential to living."

And what did he plan to do on the morning of the same day he is in line to play one more game and move past Gehrig? Why, he was going to get up early, like so many other parents, and take his daughter to school for the first time. It's recognizing this kind of a private priority that sets him apart.

The Ripken-Gehrig comparison, meanwhile, continues nonstop. Gehrig wasn't able to get beyond 2,130 because, at 35, the same age as Ripken, he was tragically struck down with an incurable spinal disease.

And, to reflect on a financial aspect of "then" and "now," Ripken's annual contract of $6,871,671, when pro-rated, comes to $47,719.94. That's for each game he plays. Gehrig, in his best salaried season, earned $39,000 for all of 1938.

In 1939, when he was stricken, the Yankees slashed Gehrig's pay by $5,000 but at the time didn't realize, nor did anyone else, they had a seriously-ill first baseman.

The record of Ripken cannot be faulted. He played a more difficult position than Gehrig yet accounted for a higher total of innings on the field.

In the so-called modern era, the records of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and now Lou Gehrig have been under attack and rewritten. But only Ripken's achievement carries pure credibility.

Stop to consider that when Henry Aaron topped Ruth he had 2,896 more at-bat opportunities. Pete Rose came to the plate 2,238 times more than Cobb. And in 1961, the year Roger Maris eclipsed Ruth's mark of 61 home runs in a season, he was in 10 more games and had 50 more at-bats.

The Ripken achievement comes with no such numerical advantage, so what he has accomplished offers absolute legitimacy and this is expressed with all due professional respect to Aaron, Rose and Maris.

Cal Ripken is about to break a record that was thought to be beyond reach. It encompasses an incredible demonstration of perseverance and durability. His skills at playing the game can't be minimized. If he didn't have ability, he wouldn't be in the lineup so there's ample talent he brings with him.

What he stands for is a testimonial to himself, a walking-around monument that will someday be put in bronze and acclaimed for perpetuity.

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