Maker of magical moments leaves imprint for all time

Presence: Forever defined by the Streak, Cal Ripken bows out with the respect of hsi peers, the adulation of his fans and the uncanny ability to command a stage

The Ripken Legacy : The Image

October 10, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Like everyone else, Mike Flanagan carries a moment, a flash that offers an indelible impression of Cal Ripken, his former teammate who grew to become, as Ripken's younger brother Bill liked to say, "the biggest man in the game."

The moment was Aug. 9, 51 days after Ripken had formally announced his intention on June 19 to retire and less than two months before the schedule said it was time to leave. Ripken had just suffered an 0-for-4 game against the Kansas City Royals, a faceless performance within another anonymous loss of a fourth-place season, except it had ended Ripken's hitting streak at 16 games, one shy of his career high.

Ripken's first at-bat had become a screaming out to left field. His next three went strikeout, pop fly, strikeout. Now, in the moments afterward, the third baseman sat at his locker replaying his night pitch by pitch.

"His hands were still trembling," says Flanagan, the left-hander who won a World Series with Ripken in 1983, then witnessed his final game as a broadcaster. "He was still wired. He went through each at-bat. He was still shaking, still in a heavy lather."

Still caring. Ripken left the game Saturday night as he wished - still a productive player at 41, universally applauded by his peers and embraced by fans in every city. Forever defined by his streak of 2,632 consecutive games, Ripken became a cultural symbol because of his ability to meet large moments as well as create smaller ones. He was, as 25-year-old teammate Jerry Hairston says, "the ultimate gamer."

Saturday's farewell followed 21 seasons that included 11 winning records but only three postseason appearances and one World Series title; yet no player of his generation better commanded the stage or left a more lasting imprint or a glossier image.

To a majority, Ripken is the Iron Man who captivated the nation in September 1995 when he tied, then broke, Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable consecutive-games record. Having lost about 10 pounds in the weeks before, he punctuated each night with a home run. His impromptu jog around Camden Yards on Sept. 6 elevated him from athlete to a transcendent figure.

"Whatever happened before or since, I think it all comes back to that night," says former Orioles announcer Jon Miller, who sat in the broadcast booth beside President Bill Clinton when Ripken cranked his home run in Game 2,131. "The Streak defined him, and, to many people, that night defined The Streak."

His departure follows a 12-city farewell tour and Saturday's powerful exit before a capacity crowd that gained the privilege only through a schedule modified after the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ripken leaves behind a legacy of 3,001 games, 3,184 hits, 431 home runs, more All-Star starts than any other player, a redefinition of shortstop, an anachronistic association with only one team during his entire career and unchallenged status as the game's best-known player.

Ripken emerged as the industry's most respected, most idolized, most marketed player of his generation. He pitched hot dogs, soft drinks, milk, trucks and realty companies while refraining from offers to pitch beer and underwear, items he found not in keeping with an image polished throughout his career. His controversies almost seem quaint by today's standards. There was the disconcerting firing of Cal Ripken Sr. as manager in 1988, separate hotel arrangements originally suggested by Major League Baseball security in 1995, a position switch after the 1996 season, the herniated disc that threatened The Streak in 1997 and his missing a cross-country team charter in 1999 that came to light only as organizational pretense to fire general manager Frank Wren.

And, most scandalously, there was his desire to play every game.

"It's a remarkable thing to have witnessed - to see what he has become. You feel lucky. You feel proud," says Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, who has known Junior for 32 years. Commissioner Bud Selig called Ripken "a vital thread to the fabric of the game." Whether Ripken actually "saved" baseball after the 1994-1995 labor dispute is uncertain. But without a doubt, Sept. 6, 1995, transformed him from merely a near-certain Hall of Famer to the game's most exalted figure.

"He is The Streak," Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro once said while with the Orioles, "and The Streak is him."

Those who know him consider him a complicated, analytical man. Those who don't frequently questioned the sincerity of his careful answers. Ripken's consistent theme, however, has remained love of game.

"When things are written about modern players not caring as much ... I always think that's wrong," says Ripken. "There's a certain love you have to establish for the game to get where they've gotten. Money aside, once the game starts, you have a certain feeling and love for the game of baseball. Otherwise, you wouldn't keep doing it."

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