This sentimental journey is one for ages 2,131: RIPKEN PASSES GEHRIG

September 07, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Put it away in a time capsule so it will be documented for the ages. This was an enchanted evening that brought an explosion of emotion, when there was a powerful expression of affection and moving respect for a man of humble bearing who has achieved what was thought to be the most unassailable record in all of baseball.

Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr., whether he knows it or not, stands as an animated monument to all that's good about America's most revered but too often beleaguered pastime. It's too early to dip him in bronze, but he pushed past the mark of Lou Gehrig by playing in 2,131 consecutive major-league games on the kind of a deeply sentimental occasion that pulled at the heartstrings.

Baltimore never enjoyed such an experience nor has any other city, town or village. It won't happen again. In all the arena of sports, even going back to chariot races in the Roman Colosseum, there has never been anything remotely to approach such a fitting salute to an athlete.

Tears of joy cascaded down the faces of grown men and women in the crowd of 46,272 to a point there was fear that Chesapeake Bay was in danger of approaching flood tide. Fathers lifted children to their shoulders so they would have a full view of the proceedings, providing them a future opportunity to tell their own children of what transpired in a ballpark on the night of Sept. 6, 1995, in the "Year of Cal Ripken."

JTC There was a strange numerical scenario played out on the scoreboard. In the previous game, 2,130, when Ripken caught Gehrig, the Orioles pushed over eight runs, the number the shortstop wears on his back. Then, in the record-breaker, they posted four runs, which was Gehrig's old New York Yankees uniform number. With all the combinations that could have come up, this one played out to perfection -- an ideal match for both Ripken, the new champion, and Gehrig, the departed hero.

As an eyewitness to previous occasions -- when Pete Rose went past Ty Cobb in Cincinnati for total hits and Henry Aaron leaped over Babe Ruth in Atlanta to establish a career home run high -- let it be known for posterity that those two achievements never approached the enthusiasm level that evolved in Baltimore for Ripken.

Gehrig's farewell in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, after he had been diagnosed with a terminal spinal disease, remains an epic of eloquence when he said, despite his illness, that "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." It wasn't an attempt to be disrespectful to Gehrig's memory, but a gathering of Baltimore spectators held up a sign that read: "We Consider Ourselves The Luckiest Fans On The Face Of the Earth."

It was 9:20 p.m. on the scoreboard clock when Ripken took possession of the record. For the next 22 minutes and 15 seconds, the game with the California Angels was delayed as Ripken responded to the crowd's applause and took eight curtain calls in front of the dugout.

The spectators wouldn't relent in their quest of chanting "We Want Ripken" until he pacified them by running a victory lap around the entire park, stopping to shake hands with fans leaning over the rail and even with a boy who toppled out of the bleachers in an attempt to touch the New Iron Horse.

He shook hands with a police officer standing guard and stopped to talk individually with every California Angel, the visiting team that came out on the field to cheer Ripken's achievement. It was an act of sincere professional recognition, hardly to be dismissed or minimized.

Oriole-colored balloons of orange and black ascended into the air. Aerial bombs were set off in a rapid charge. Fireworks ignited. The noise was as deafening as thunder roaring through a valley in the midst of a violent summer storm. Ripken had moved past Gehrig in a workmanlike process that wiped out what was supposed to be an untouchable standard of endurance.

Cal Ripken has established himself as the Orioles' most popular figure in history. Brooks Robinson, gracious as always, came to the microphone and said, "I played in Baltimore for 20 years and it was said that I was Mr. Oriole. But Cal Ripken, you are Mr. Oriole." What a compliment, especially coming from Robinson, who was so gifted as well as inherently kind.

One of baseball's most illustrious heroes, Joe DiMaggio, who was with Gehrig on the Yankees for four seasons, felt pride for Ripken but also reverence to the memory of his departed friend. He put it so succinctly when he went to the microphone and remarked that what happened proves that "even the greatest of records are made to be broken. I'm sure wherever my former teammate is tonight he is tipping his cap to Cal Ripken."

The Ripken acceptance speech was like everything else he does, offering profound sensitivity and consideration for his family and the spectators who cheered him in parks all over the league.

Ripken, to his credit, minimized the avalanche of accolades heaped upon him. He has carried out what literally represents a lifetime baseball achievement award with a style, grace and strength of character, achieving a goal by playing one game at a time. It's an attainment to be preserved and a moment to be reserved among the pages of life's finest memories.

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