Years lend fresh perspective to meaning of Ripken feat

`Pure' record revisited against steroids backdrop

The Streak: 10 Years Later

September 04, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

A few years ago, Cal Ripken and his wife plopped down in front of a television to finally watch the video commemorating Ripken's record-setting 2,131st consecutive major league game.

They sat there for about two minutes when the Orioles legend turned and said: "You know what? I still remember it in my head the way I want to remember it."

Kelly Ripken agreed. They stopped the tape - and haven't watched it since.

For the Ripkens, for Baltimore and perhaps for the sport of baseball, Sept. 6, 1995, has melded into sporting lore.

The images of Ripken homering in the fourth inning, being pushed out of the dugout by teammates an inning later and then shaking hands during a 22-minute victory lap seem indelible in the mind's eye of Baltimore's baseball fans.

Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of that night, an evening of pageantry that featured a John Tesh instrumental as the soundtrack and popping flashbulbs as a glittering background.

There were 46,272 fans at the park and millions more watching from home on ESPN as four illuminated banners bearing the No. 2131 were unfurled on the B&O warehouse beyond right field in the middle of the fifth inning. Players and fans alike choked back tears while applauding a local boy with a blue-collar work ethic.

With the passing of a decade, however, comes the inevitable yearning for perspective, for deciphering what it all means.

Was Ripken's eclipsing of Lou Gehrig's once-unbreakable record one of the most memorable moments in baseball history? Did it indeed help resuscitate a sport that was months removed from another work stoppage?

Or was Ripken's record-breaker just another over-hyped achievement in the saturated, made-for-TV world of manufactured athletic heroes? Has the sports world moved on, with Ripken's accomplishments of Sept. 6, 1995, relegated to a historic footnote? Perhaps most intriguing, has Ripken's feat taken on a different meaning and a greater significance now that a steroids cloud looms over the 1998 home run chase? The answers differ depending on who is asked.

"What it meant then was baseball is back," said syndicated columnist and renowned baseball fan George Will. "The '94 strike, fairly or unfairly, was viewed by the fan base as rich, overprivileged people squabbling over increments of privilege.

"[Ripken's streak] came exactly at the right time by exactly the right personality. It was the sheer everyday-ness of it. What was being celebrated was a guy who got up and went to work every day. People can identify with that."

The steroid era

With the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal, the congressional steroid hearings and Rafael Palmeiro's positive drug test, baseball again is at another critical crossroads. Again, its fans are reminded of the tireless Ripken and what he stood for, Will said.

"The 10th anniversary falls at a very different time. The difference is steroids," Will said. "No one ever suggested Cal took steroids, and his achievements are not related to a dramatic spike in productivity. His achievements are about the undramatic, the consistent. Granted, at a high level, a Hall of Fame level, but there are no gaudy numbers other than the one we talk about.

"So just as breaking Gehrig's streak came at a serendipitous time for baseball, so does the anniversary."

Broadcaster Bob Costas who, like Will, was at Camden Yards when Ripken set the record, said it was unlike any other sporting event he had attended.

It was a night filled with honest emotions and void of pretense.

"The hype, the lack of authenticity, the lack of sincerity, the fraying of connection, all those things that plague sports, they were in evidence then. They are just more in evidence now," Costas said. "People were feeling it, especially in baseball post-strike, and I think what struck everyone that night was just the authenticity of it, the authenticity of Ripken's career, his authenticity as a player, the authenticity of his connection to Baltimore."

Fans, but skeptics, too

Cathy Helowicz, a children's author from Pasadena, Md., and lifelong Orioles fan, was in one of the special event-only seats along the left field foul line. She grabbed Ripken's hand during his lap, something she'll never forget.

"You were so happy for him, you just wanted to touch him, or wanted him to touch you," she said. "Being a part of that moment was really special. It was just one of the true Baltimore moments that just won't happen again."

Not everyone bought into the spirit sanctity of the evening, however.

"I'm wary of most stuff like that," said Pulitzer Prize-winning author and reporter David Halberstam. "Less and less is spontaneous in the world of sports, and more and more every aspect of sports is orchestrated because people know the camera will be around and will do for the camera what the camera wants them to do."

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