Another shining moment in bright career

September 03, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The ball jumped off his bat and sailed into the warm evening at Camden Yards, bringing life and a touch of history to a game between two teams going nowhere.

Cal Ripken knew it was gone almost as soon as he hit it. The ball was a high, lazy fly to left, but easily long enough and fair -- a home run, no doubt. Ripken raced down the first-base line holding his bat, obviously knowing he wouldn't need to sprint for long.

The crowd loosed a roar immediately, even before Ripken reached first base. The many patches of empty seats in the ballpark were testimony to the Orioles' dismal season; even the possibility of seeing the 400th home run of Ripken's career hadn't lured extra fans. But now, suddenly, those who'd dared to come out to watch the Orioles and Devil Rays squabble over last place had been given a gift -- a major moment in Ripken's career.

A rare interlude of dignity and inspiration in this dreariest of seasons.

"Moments like that are magical," Ripken said after the Orioles' 11-6 win last night. "I was running around the bases wanting to jump up and down like an 8-year-old."

His 400th homer came on a 1-1 pitch from Tampa Bay's Rolando Arrojo, with two outs and two on in the bottom of the third. It landed 10 rows into the seats, bounced off a fan's nose and ended up in the hands of a law student.

After spending 38 days at 399, stuck on the disabled list with back trouble, Ripken needed just five at-bats to hit the home run everyone wanted to see, the one that made him the 29th major-leaguer in history to hit 400.

"You can't help but think about it, being one away like I was," he said. "People tend to remind you of it. I didn't go up there trying to hit one, but I'm happy and excited that I did."

It happened in exactly the right way, in the right place, in the city where he is embraced as a home-grown Hall of Famer. The moment would have been appreciated anywhere -- Ripken's stature guaranteed that -- but it belonged at Camden Yards, where he now makes history with every hit, home run or otherwise.

He toured the bases quickly, with his head down, accepting a warm slap on the back from third base coach Sam Perlozzo and congratulations at home plate from Albert Belle and Jeff Conine, who'd been on base. The Orioles' dugout swarmed him as he came down the steps.

The crowd continued to cheer for one minute, then another and still another as a video tribute to his milestone homers ran on the scoreboard. Ripken, accustomed to these scenes, finally appeared on the top step of the dugout and tipped his batting helmet to the crowd.

The game was stopped, with the Devil Rays conveniently making a pitching change -- Rick White in, Arrojo out after giving up seven runs -- and the ovation continued. One tip of the cap obviously wasn't going to be enough.

Finally, Ripken jumped off the bench to acknowledge the cheers again, this time with a wave from in front of the dugout. After that, some five minutes after the home run, the Orioles' Eugene Kingsale dug into the batter's box and the game resumed.

"It was great to do it at home," Ripken said. "These little celebrations fuel you and keep you going. It's been a disappointing season for all of us, and these moments can't make up for everything, but they're nice and I try to enjoy them. That's what I did tonight."

This September night obviously didn't have the emotional wallop of the September night in 1995 when Ripken passed Lou Gehrig and became baseball's all-time iron man, and it didn't have the poignancy of the September night last year when he abruptly ended his consecutive-games streak, but it had its own swirl of sentiments.

Ripken became mortal this year, enduring the death of his father and the classic infirmity of middle age -- back pain. Both experiences hung in the air last night.

Even though he has put together a renaissance season no one expected, he obviously can't go on for too much longer with a back that keeps giving out.

As accustomed as he and everyone else have become to these moments, there aren't that many left. He'll get his 3,000th hit, probably early next season, and that'll about do it.

Ripken seemed to grasp the notion last night, embracing 400 for all of its happiness, even in the midst of this wreck of a season.

Of course, how could he not? After hitting the homer, he looked into the stands and was stunned to see his mother, Vi, among those cheering.

"I had no idea she was coming," he said. "But that's just like her. She probably would have come to 200 games in a row until I hit it.

"To see her there made the moment. At times like that you think of your whole life, your father, your mother. That's what makes it a great moment."

It was enough to make you pause and remember what you were seeing. A player who defined an entire era for the Orioles. A player whose career and legacy will go down as among the game's shiniest.

A player whose high moments of history-making should never be taken for granted.

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