It's over After 2,632 consecutive games, Orioles' Iron Man takes a seat

It's time to sit, Ripken tells Miller before Yanks game

Don't be sad, be happy'

Fans, players alike captivated by streak that covered 16 years

The Streak -- It's Over

September 21, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Streak died last night of natural causes. It was 2,632.

Cal Ripken, who has played with grace and grit for a generation without daring to miss a game, stepped into manager Ray Miller's office shortly before last night's game against the New York Yankees and asked the unimaginable. He asked for the night off.

Sixteen years after Earl Weaver penned his name on the lineup card on May 30, 1982, Ripken did what only he could do. Recognizing the time had come for him to let go of one of the game's most impressive records, he sat on the bench as the Orioles took the field for their final home game of the season.

The Streak outlasted seven managers and included only three ejections and a run of 8,243 consecutive innings. The Orioles were 1,334-1,297 during its time. Ripken exited early from 130 games, including 27 this season.

During the streak, Ripken played alongside his brother, Billy, and for his father, former manager Cal Ripken Sr. Three years before Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's successful pursuit of Roger Maris' home run record "saved" baseball, Ripken's streak became the salve for a disenfranchised fan base enraged by the 1994 players' strike.

While the strike robbed the game of a World Series and forced an abbreviated 1995 season, Ripken's pursuit returned national attention to a sport lampooned as too slow, too rich and too uncaring. On Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken captivated the nation with his celebrated lap around Camden Yards, literally touching many in attendance and figuratively reaching out to anyone who watched from afar. The moment galvanized Ripken's image as something more than a player with Hall of Fame credentials.

"To a lot of people, Cal is the Orioles," Miller said recently. "To some of them he represents baseball."

On that night, he broke Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. After eclipsing Gehrig's record, Ripken played another 501 games, more than a season longer than the second-longest streak, Chicago White Sox left fielder Albert Belle's run of 325.

Last night represented an event many couldn't envision. High school sophomores were not yet born when the kid from Aberdeen had last missed a game.

Relayed to Miller 25 minutes before last night's game, Ripken's decision was preceded by changes, both subtle and obvious, over the last several seasons. He surrendered shortstop for good last season, returning to third base, where he began his first full major-league career in 1982.

Observations were made that his defensive range had diminished and his bat speed slowed. Still, the Iron Man made the necessary adjustments in each role and this year has committed only eight errors while hitting .273, higher than his career average.

"He's an amazing guy," said hitting coach Rick Down. "Sure, he's stubborn. But that's what makes him great. He will not accept failure. It's what has made him a great player all these years. He's an uncompromising guy."

The Streak grew to be larger than Ripken and any of his recent managers, regardless of how many times and how many people he told otherwise. Phil Regan, Davey Johnson, Ray Miller none of them dared touch The Streak.

Miller was perhaps the most reluctant of Ripken's recent managers to touch the issue. At his hiring, Miller said the decision would not be made without the involvement of majority owner Peter Angelos and general manager Pat Gillick.

Ripken apparently had contemplated the move for weeks, but didn't notify his family or his marketing firm until the past few days. He had hinted broadly to Miller last week that he might end his run but didn't offer confirmation until before last night's home finale.

Players speak reverently of many on-field accomplishments but Ripken's feat remained the most awe-inspiring.

"When [2,131] happened, we were on the field in Houston. Players stopped what they were doing and just watched," said Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins, then manager of the Houston Astros. "While fans were impressed, to anyone playing the game it's something even more powerful. Players try to put themselves in that position. It's impossible to comprehend."

Perhaps that's why the Yankees climbed from the dugout during the first inning to join in a standing ovation. Ripken emerged twice from the first-base dugout before finally imploring Orioles pitcher Doug Johns to resume the game.

"It's such an amazing feat because it was not only a physical accomplishment, but also a mental one in that he had to be prepared every one of those games," said Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. "It sets up different parameters than other players. Other players take a day off when they're in a slump. Cal doesn't."

The trait has sometimes brought him criticism, most vocally from media who insisted his durability sapped his performance. Ripken's answer was that he played daily because he was the best available player at his position.

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