An Oriole made of iron makes hit a magic moment

April 16, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

MINNEAPOLIS -- The moment arrived with two outs in the top of the seventh inning last night at the Metrodome, when a tall, square-shouldered reliever named Hector Carrasco threw a fastball down the middle of the plate. The count was 1-0. The pitch was a peach. Cal Ripken was swinging all the way.

As soon as his bat met the ball, there was no doubt.

The ball sailed back through the infield on a hard line and fell toward the artificial turf in front of Torii Hunter, the Minnesota Twins' center fielder.

The crowd of 18,745, suddenly in the presence of history, already was roaring long before the 3,000th hit of Ripken's career touched down.

"It seemed like it was happening in slow motion," Ripken said. "I knew it was a hit."

It happened at the wrong time and in the wrong place, far from Baltimore and Camden Yards, where Ripken has celebrated so many of the high points of his career. A warm ovation that lasted four minutes last night probably would have lasted three times as long at home.

"It obviously would have been a great and fulfilling celebration" in Baltimore, Ripken said. "But there's also an honor you owe the game. You can't fudge it. You can't show up not to play."

He showed up last night and collected three hits in a four-inning span to break out of a slump that had prolonged his race for 3,000 far longer than he wanted.

And in the end, it wasn't the wrong time or place. It was still history, no matter when or where. Still an event filled with magical touches.

The Minnesota crowd cheered for Ripken all evening, as if he were a native son, and he repaid them after the game, coming back out in his uniform to sign autographs for 15 minutes.

"I wish everyone could experience the feeling of stepping on an opposing field and being treated like one of theirs," Ripken said. "I wanted to let them know how much I appreciated it."

And when his hit touched down in the seventh, Ripken rounded first and, fittingly, the first person to congratulate him was Orioles first base coach Eddie Murray, Ripken's first mentor in the major leagues and a fellow member of the 3,000-hit club.

The two future Hall of Famers shared the briefest of private moments as the Orioles' dugout and bullpen emptied and Ripken's teammates raced toward him.

"Seeing a big, friendly face down there at first, that was special," Ripken said. "There wasn't time to say much. Eddie just said `way to go,' and `join the club.' Given the time we spent together as teammates and what he taught me about how to play the game long enough to do something like this, it obviously was meaningful to have him there at that moment."

Then his teammates were all over him and the crowd was cheering and flashbulbs were popping everywhere. Someone handed Ripken the ball he'd hit, which had been retrieved, and he took it to his wife, Kelly, who was sitting in the front row with their two children.

Just the day before, Ripken had spoken about how "nerve-wracking" the chase was becoming, about how he wanted it over even if it meant getting the job done this weekend in Minneapolis instead of in Baltimore.

He was still four hits shy when he said that, and given that he'd collected only five hits all season at that point, the chances seemed slim.

But then he singled Friday night and hit a bunch of line drives that were caught -- "a really good game," Ripken said -- and he came into last night needing just three more hits. Suddenly, there was a reason to believe this might be the night. Opponents were hitting .450 against Twins starter Sean Bergman.

After grounding out in his first at-bat, Ripken came up with a runner on first and no outs in the top of the fourth and lined Bergman's 2-2 pitch to right field for a single. Two hits to go.

An inning later, with two outs and a runner on second, he worked the count to 2-1 and pounded a fastball down against the plate. The ball bounced "six stories high," Ripken said. "Even I could beat that one out."

He was almost to first by the time the ball came down to Twins third baseman Corey Koskie.

Another hit.

One to go, suddenly.

The crowd loosed a roar, knowing it would now get at least one chance to see Ripken take a shot at 3,000.

"When I got that one [off the plate], that's the kind of thing that happens when things start going your way," Ripken said. "You start to think that maybe something is happening."

Twins manager Tom Kelly didn't make it easy. After Harold Baines grounded out for the second out in the top of the seventh, Kelly pulled left-hander Travis Miller and brought in Carrasco, a right-hander, to face Ripken.

"I was trying to tap into my experience at World Series and All-Star Games, where you have to calm yourself down," Ripken said. "I know [Carrasco] is a hard-throwing guy, and I knew it was a tough matchup. But I was more worried about myself. I was telling myself, `Just calm down, see the ball and don't try to swing too hard.' "

When Carrasco was finished warming up, the fans stood and cheered. Carrasco's first pitch was high, sailing all the way to the backstop and allowing a run to score from third.

After backing out of the way for that, Ripken dug back in. Carrasco looked in for the sign, paused and let a fastball fly.

The moment was at hand.

Homers and hits

Cal Ripken last night became the seventh player in history to achieve career milestones of both 3,000 hits and 400 home runs:

Player Hits HRs

Hank Aaron 3,771 755

Stan Musual 3,630 475

Carl Yastrzemski 3,419 452

Willie Mays 3,283 660

Eddie Murray 3,255 504

Dave Winfield 3,110 465

Cal Ripken 3,000 404

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