Baltimore's ultimate sports moment 2,131 RIPKEN PASSES GEHRIG

September 07, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

In the morning, he took his daughter to her first day of kindergarten.

In the evening, he broke an immortal record, hit another home run, kissed his kids and took a victory lap around the field that reduced an entire city to tears.

Pretty good day -- only the best in this city's sports history.

How can anything compare to the night Cal Ripken passed Lou Gehrig at Camden Yards?

How can any other moment compare to an accomplishment, a moment, that shimmered on so many levels?

In a city that treasures its past like few others, a city that revels in its sports history, this moment was the ultimate historical marker. One that probably will stand forever.

Sweeping the Dodgers in 1966? Beating the Giants in overtime to win the 1958 NFL championship? Winning the Super Bowl on a last-second field goal in 1971? That's the competition for the best moment ever here, and, as fabulous and indelible as those moments were, and as hallowed as they are here, they can't compare.

It's not just that Ripken broke a record that, thanks to Gehrig, stands as a pillar on the pantheon of American lore. It's also that he is a hometown boy weaned on the Colts and Orioles and Memorial Stadium, a big spit of Baltimore flesh and blood, and he broke the record here, at home.

And it's not just what he accomplished and where, but who he is, what he stands for. It's that he took his daughter to kindergarten yesterday because he wouldn't have it any other way, that he signs autographs with a smile, that he never asks to renegotiate his contract, that he doesn't show up on the police blotter -- that he is, if you will, as human as his legend is inhuman.

It all came together last night on a warm September evening, the best of Baltimore on display for the world, a gift from the city to the rest of the sports world, a convergence of circumstances that may never be repeated again -- not just here, but at any time, in any town.

A kid who grew up cheering for the home team and wound up playing shortstop -- how often does that happen?

A player who spends his entire career playing for one team, never joining the team-hopping free agency free-for-all -- how often will that happen anymore?

A hometown hero who breaks a revered record, a workingman's record that transcends sports, and breaks it in a workingman's town.

How many times will all of this stuff come down together again, anywhere?

Maybe never.

And as if all that weren't enough to turn this night into the stuff of mythology, Ripken stepped to the plate in the fourth inning and smacked a 3-0 pitch from Shawn Boskie into the left-field seats, giving him home runs in three straight games for the first time in four years.

It was as if "The Natural" had come to life before our eyes. The crowd stood and roared, and roared some more, but even that prolonged ovation was just a prelude to what happened after the game became official in the middle of the fifth inning.

The streak banner on the warehouse dropped, showing the number 2,131, and the crowd stood and cheered, and Ripken emerged from the dugout, hugged his kids, and acknowledged the crowd for five minutes, as he had when he tied Gehrig's record the night before.

But just when it appeared the momentum of the moment was dying, Ripken's teammates pushed him onto the field once more and ordered him to take a victory lap around the field. It was an impromptu, emotional response to a record that was 14 years in the breaking, and anyone who was present will remember it as the night's defining moment.

Ripken trotted down the right-field line in foul ground, slapping palms with some fans and shaking hands with others as he worked his way out toward the scoreboard. Then he peeled off toward center, shook hands with policemen and groundskeepers, and leapt into the air to slap palms with some kids leaning out from the front row of the cheap seats.

Making his way across the outfield, he slapped hands with Orioles relievers, stopped to hug longtime coach and confidante Elrod Hendricks, then moved through left field and down the third base line.

You didn't have a pulse if you didn't see the moment in all of its glorious symbolism, the rare ballplayer still able to connect with the fans. The dwindling part of sports that is still honest and earnest and has its priorities straight. The real deal.

The emotional high waters flooded when Ripken reached the Angels' dugout, where the players in the road uniforms had been clapping hard for 15 minutes -- the ultimate tribute. Ripken hugged Angels coach Rod Carew, shook hands with each player and hugged former teammate Rene Gonzales.

When the cheers finally quieted and the game resumed after 22 minutes and 15 seconds, the ballpark was wrenched of emotion, the fans exhausted. A city and its favored native son were joined, and there was nothing left for anyone to say except what Mike Mussina had said the day before: Boy, were we lucky to get to witness it.

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