Meeting Kinugasa makes streak special for Ripken

June 15, 1996|By John Eisenberg

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The question was simple: How had this night compared to the night when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's major-league record for consecutive games played last September at Camden Yards?

Sitting on a podium underneath the stands at Kauffman Stadium last night, not long after breaking Sachio Kinugasa's world record for consecutive games, Ripken smiled and offered a surprising answer.

"In some ways, this was more fulfilling," he said.

How could that be? Last Sept. 6 was a wondrous night of tears and emotions, a touchstone moment in baseball history. Last night couldn't begin to compare, and didn't.

There were 15,000 empty seats on a warm night under blue skies, and at times Ripken seemed almost embarrassed by the attention. He quelled one budding ovation by stepping into the batter's box, and remained in the dugout for most of a three-minute ovation after the game was official after the fifth inning, emerging only to find Kinugasa and shake his hand.

"If you haven't experienced something like this, you can't understand the saturation of attention after a while," Ripken said. "After a while it gets embarrassing, and, with my personality, it's just natural for me to to tend to want to pull back."

So, how could this night have exceeded last Sept. 6?

Because the man whose record Ripken had broken was sitting beside him at the news conference.

Ripken and Kinugasa have been thrown together repeatedly since meeting Tuesday in Detroit. Clearly, they have become fast friends through the course of several meals and relaxed conversations.

"From a human interest aspect, this has been a whole lot more interesting for me," Ripken said.

Although they're from different cultures and of different generations -- Kinugasa is 14 years older -- it has become obvious in the past few days that the two had much in common as players.

They weren't the most talented players on their teams, but they were the most dependable.

They were infielders who hit with power.

Most importantly, their approach to the game was born of a childlike enjoyment of just playing.

"Just a matter of, 'Hey, I want to play, let me in there,' nothing more and nothing less," Ripken said. "It has been very satisfying and fascinating for me to meet [Kinugasa] and find out how similar we are and how similar our experiences were."

Probably only one thing could have surpassed the experience of getting to know Kinugasa:

Getting to know Gehrig.

For years, Ripken resisted learning about Gehrig, the tragic star whose legend he chased.

No more.

"I would love to have gotten inside Mr. Gehrig's head," Ripken said last night, "like I have been able to get inside Mr. Kinugasa's head. Something tells me I that would have heard a lot of the same things that I have heard from Mr. Kinugasa. I think it takes a special passion for the game to undertake what is basically the lifelong commitment of a consecutive games streak."

After building a relationship in private during the past week, Ripken and Kinugasa shared several public moments last night.

Before the game, they exchanged gifts on the field and shared the first-pitch honors. With the crowd standing and cheering him, Kinugasa took the ball to the mound, raised his arms in triumph over his head, unbuttoned his jacket and threw a high, hard one to Ripken.

Then, after the Royals had batted in the bottom of the fifth and the game was official, there was the signature moment.

As the crowd stood and cheered again, Ripken came out of the dugout and waved his cap, then retreated to the dugout for two minutes. Finally, he emerged again, waved his cap and sought out Kinugasa, who was applauding Ripken along with the rest of the crowd in his seat behind the Oriole dugout.

Ripken walked over to the railing by the dugout to salute Kinugasa, who left his seat, shuffled past several fans and met Ripken at the railing.

They shook hands warmly.

"It seemed to be absolutely the right thing to do," Ripken said. "The celebration wasn't so much for me as it was for baseball, international baseball, Japanese baseball, and two people that share a passion for the game.

"I felt that we shared that moment, the two of us, that it was our moment equally."

Having followed the Orioles all week, Kinugasa has gotten to study Ripken up close. He was asked last night: Have you learned anything about Ripken as a player?

After Kinugasa answered in Japanese, and before the translator began speaking, Ripken said, "What he said was, 'All field, no hit.' "

Kinugasa, who understands some English, burst out laughing.

Actually, Kinugasa has gotten to see Ripken on one of his hottest rolls of the past few seasons.

Ripken has a .333 average with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in his past 18 games before last night. His fielding has been particularly superb.

"These last few weeks are probably one of the best stretches I've seen from Cal," teammate Brady Anderson said last night. "He's not just having a good year; he's having a huge year."

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, a longtime Ripken watcher, concurred.

"You probably have to go back to his MVP season in '91 to see him going this well," Hendricks said. "'I'm talking offense and defense."

Ripken didn't hit a homer last night, as he did last Sept. 6. He didn't even get a hit last night.

But he has given Kinugasa the best possible present for a fellow baseball purist: the chance to see his record broken by a Hall of Famer.

And, in turn, Kinugasa has given Ripken a present: the chance to meet the man behind the number he chased.

At last.

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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