Out of game, out of sorts for O's budding `Iron Man'

After playing in 8,243 consecutive innings, Cal Ripken found sitting down most uncomfortable

September 14, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

At the end, Cal Ripken Jr. didn't know where to start.

Benched in mid-game for the first time in five years, he sat at attention in the Orioles' dugout, like a nervous rookie up from Triple-A. Glove in hand, Ripken stared out at shortstop - his haunt for 8,243 consecutive innings - and wondered:

What am I supposed to do?

He hadn't a clue.

Seventeen years later, Ripken recalls the disorientation he felt in being yanked from the lineup, for all of 20 minutes. On Sept. 14, 1987, Ripken was lifted in the eighth inning of an 18-3 loss in Toronto. The change made headlines because he hadn't missed a frame since June 4, 1982 - a span of 904 straight games.

It was the first of two streaks that gained attention for Ripken. The latter, in which he played a record 2,632 consecutive games, earned him fame and the nickname "Iron Man."

But it was in Toronto that he got a taste of what it was like to sit down.

Ironically, it was Ripken's father, Cal Sr., who pulled the plug. The Orioles manager believed the grind of playing every inning, plus the media hype, had become "a burden" for his slumping (.250) All-Star.

"I've thought about it for two weeks, and this was the perfect night [to end it]," Cal Sr. said afterward, alluding to the rout in which Toronto hit a record 10 home runs. "He wasn't going to hit a 20-run homer."

Not that it would have mattered. The Orioles (62-81) were mired in fifth place in the American League East.

So, in the top of the eighth inning, as they sat in the dugout near the helmet rack, the manager asked the shortstop about making a substitution.

Senior: "What do you think about coming out?"

Junior: "What do you think?"

Senior: "I think it would be the right thing."

Junior: "OK."

And that was that. No one else knew except Ron Washington, who would replace Ripken for a half inning. Cal Sr. had tipped his hand to the 35-year-old journeyman seconds before.

Stunned, Washington asked, "What will Cal say about that?"

"Don't worry about Junior," the manager said. "I'll take care of him."

Cal Jr., it was agreed, would bat his turn in the eighth, then leave the game. But he reached on a fielder's choice and was stranded. As the Orioles took the field, rookie second baseman Bill Ripken reached for his brother's glove to take it to him when the manager intervened.

"That's the wrong glove," Cal Sr. said.

"No, this is Cal's," Bill said.

"That's the wrong glove."

Bill Ripken's eyes darted from his father's impassive visage to the sight of his brother, 27, trotting toward the bench -- and Washington, heading out.

On Bill Ripken's face, Cal Jr. said, was "a look of disbelief."

As they passed each other near the foul line, Cal Jr. tried to calm him. "It's OK," the older brother said.

The second baseman's reaction was one of denial. "I didn't want to acknowledge what was going on," he said recently. "A really weird feeling came over me as I ran onto the field."

But it was nothing compared to what his brother was going through.

"I kept staring into the dugout [at Cal Jr.], and he had this confused look, like he just didn't know what to do," Bill Ripken said. "He sat there with this real good posture, not all comfy and slouched like you're supposed to be on the bench.

"After every pitch, I took another peek. Junior's expression never changed."

The new shortstop couldn't afford a glance sideways. "I was totally focused," said Washington, now an Oakland Athletics coach. "The last thing I wanted was to do something wrong."

From Toronto's bench, pitcher Mike Flanagan spotted the switch. Traded in midseason to the Blue Jays, Flanagan had played with the Orioles all of Ripken's career.

"For me, Cal's leaving was a big deal," said Flanagan, now an Orioles vice president. "I just watched him in the dugout. It looked to be a very painful inning."

It was.

"I didn't know how to act or what to feel," Cal Ripken Jr. told The Sun recently. "I felt like I was in a place where I didn't belong. I was on the outside looking in - and I didn't like it."

Toronto was still batting when a restless Ripken wandered into the empty clubhouse. "I remember thinking, `What do I do now? Take off my uniform? Take a shower?'

"That didn't seem right; the game was still going on. So I changed into a more comfortable pair of shoes and went back [to the dugout]."

The episode intensified his obsession to maintain the "other" streak, which would earn him hero status.

Said Ripken: "I began thinking that I may have compromised my integrity by coming out of a game, that I had surrendered myself to the idea that I'd taken the easy way out.

"Maybe the [end of the innings streak] strengthened my resolve to play every day."

Play every game, he did for 11 more seasons, and 16 overall (1982 to 1998).

Ripken's consecutive-games streak is legitimate, but the innings streak is not.

"A consecutive-innings streak, although amazing, is not an official record," said Claudette Burke, librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

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