An out-of-town baseball writer arrived in Baltimore on the morning of Sept. 6, 1995, the morning of game No. 2,131. He did not know Cal Ripken Jr. personally, and he had not been a part of the weeklong, if not yearlong, build-up at Oriole Park to what would be one of the most remarkable nights in baseball history.
Just before game time, the writer approached a local writer and asked, "What is the big deal here? I don't see it, I don't feel it, I don't get it."
Nearly three hours later, after the top of the fifth inning had made the game official and Ripken had replaced the iconic Lou Gehrig as baseball's all-time iron man, after the enormous "2,131" banner had been unfurled on the B&O Warehouse in right field, and after Ripken's spontaneous and unforgettable 22-minute tour around the warning track, as he patted his heart and waved and pointed to adoring Baltimore Orioles fans, most of whom were in tears, the out-of-town writer, wiping tears from his eyes, saw the local writer.
"OK," he said, "now I get it."
While Ripken's eclipsing of Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played milestone, as inexorable as it became, might have lacked the drama of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951, or even Kirk Gibson's walk-off blast in the 1988 World Series, the magnificent tribute to Ripken was every bit the equal of any previous outpouring of affection for a sports figure. It was deserved, and necessary, because Ripken's pursuit of Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record, and all that it represented in both men, helped revive the game in the aftermath of the destructive players' strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series and nearly killed the game.
That one spectacular night at Camden Yards was about more than baseball. It was about commitment, discipline, family and doing things the right way. It restored hope that there was some purity left in the game -- it wasn't just played by a bunch of guys in it only for the money; most were still in it for the love of the game. And when that night was over, Ripken said, "It was like an out-of-body experience. It's like when your wife is having a baby. You're watching and thinking, 'This can't be me. This can't be my wife. This can't be my child.' You think it's happening to someone else. These last two nights here, I kept thinking, 'This can't be happening to me. This has to be someone else.'"
No, Cal. It was you. Only he could have been strong enough and could have loved the competition enough to play every game for 17 straight seasons -- 2,632 consecutive games, a record that will never be approached.
Now it has been 20 years since 2,131, and Ripken has finally taken time to watch the tape and appreciate the importance of that incredible night.
"The most powerful moment of that night was seeing my dad," Ripken said. "He was up in the skybox, but during the celebration, I locked eyes with him. He was a man of few words when it came to how he felt about his son. But that look said a million words to me."
"When I meet people today, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is that they tell me they were at 2,130 or 2,131. It seems like 250,000 people have said they were there. ... And they all have a story." Cal Ripken Jr.
And in telling that story 20 years later, Ripken choked up briefly thinking of his father, Cal Sr., who died in 1999. As Ripken recalled other events of that night, he said, "I get goose bumps down my back, and I get teary-eyed. I had only the perspective of my own eyes that night, but when I look back at the tape, and different camera angles, I see things, and I say, 'I didn't know that happened, I didn't know that happened.'
"During the celebration, I embraced [Angels hitting coach] Rod Carew. It was so cool because it was Rodney Carew. I'm sure what he said must have been special, but I don't remember what he said."
But everyone else who was there remembers everything from that night.
"When I meet people today, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is that they tell me they were at 2,130 or 2,131," Ripken said. "It seems like 250,000 people have said they were there. I know there is a certain capacity for major league parks. But it happens every day, even now. Someone will talk to me about that night. And they all have a story."
And, 20 years later, Ripken acknowledges The Streak had a small part in reviving the game.
"I think back, and I'm still surprised that even at the start of the '95 season, people across the country were interested in this because I think people could relate to it, the value of showing up every day," Ripken said. "There was a connection to Lou Gehrig that people really felt. After the strike, the game had become more of a business. People were looking for something good in baseball. People were mad, and they had a right to be. But people were in tune with the streak. It helped bring the game back. I think I played a part in that."
Ripken said his only regret about the streak is that the volume of it, at times, took away from his time with the fans.
"I signed autographs until 3 o'clock in the morning some nights -- that's true, but sometimes, the fans got pushed out because of all the other responsibilities," Ripken said. "I missed that, because they all had stories, they all had their own streaks, like working for a plant for 31 years and never missing a day. Whoa. Now that's a streak. We should be celebrating those streaks. That's work. I just played baseball."
Ripken didn't just play baseball; he played it with a passion and enthusiasm like few others.
"I told him once that I wanted him to skip infield one night in Kansas City because it was so hot. I wanted to give him a rest," former Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "I get to the park, and he's on the field taking early BP in 100-degree heat, then he went to the outfield to see who could rob the most home runs at the left-field fence."
Infielder Rene Gonzales, who played with Ripken for three years in Baltimore and was there for 2,131 as a member of the Angels, said, "I knew he'd get this record. This is nothing for him. He's an alien."
That was clear long before his pursuit of Gehrig. As a skinny freshman shortstop in high school, Ripken got the wind knocked out of him after being steamrolled by a runner at second base. Ripken's coach ran out to check on him. Ripken, who was barely able to speak, looked at his coach and gasped, "Don't take me out!"
Toughness and desire came from his father, a, former minor league catcher.
"When he played soccer, he played midfield into his 50's, he'd play the whole game against guys 30 years younger, and he'd get kicked in the foot, and blood would form under his big toenail," Cal Jr. said of his father. "He'd come home, take me down to our basement, get a drill and drill a hole in the nail. Blood could come spurting out, relieving the pressure. He would look at me and say, 'Aaah.'"
On April 10, 1985, 444 games into The Streak, Ripken Jr. was covering second base on a pickoff play when his spikes caught on the bag; he lost his balance and rolled his ankle. He heard a pop, felt tremendous pain, stayed in the game, of course, went to the trainer's room after the inning and told Orioles trainer Richie Bancells to "tape it as tight as you can."
Ripken finished the game, of course, removed the tape and watched his ankle swell up like a blowfish.
"His foot was big, I mean big," teammate Mike Flanagan said. "It was all black and blue. I thought, 'No way he can play.'"
Ripken went to the hospital after the game, was told by doctors not to run for at least two weeks and was told to stay on crutches for a week. Ripken got to his car and disgustedly threw the crutches in the back seat. He never used them, worked on the ankle the next day -- April 11 was an off day -- played on April 12, then played another 14 seasons without missing a game. How could he play with an ankle that was black and blue?
"It wasn't that bad," he said. "I just taped it up tight."
In the clubhouse in the early '90s, still years from Gehrig's record, the Orioles occasionally played a game to determine which player could take the most pain and which one was the hardest to bruise. The game, of course, was invented by Ripken, who was, of course, the champion.
"Ten minutes before the start of one game, Rip threw me down and stuck his knuckle in my ribs," ex-Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald said. "Then a couple of guys jumped him and dug their knuckles in his ribs. We had him pinned down. He was yelling, 'No! No!' but he wouldn't give up. He'd rather die. The next day, we compared ribs. I had three big bruises. He had one tiny red spot."
Then McDonald laughed and said, "I can't wait until The Streak is over. A bunch of us are going to get him down and pummel him. But we won't be able to hurt him ... and he will not bruise."
That was a competition to Ripken, but then everything was a competition to him. And it didn't matter if it was baseball, basketball, floor hockey, whatever. If there was a game, he had to play, and he had to win. When the Orioles used to play the Twins at the Metrodome, Ripken invented a game to see how many strides it took him to scale the steps that led from the dugout to the clubhouse. There were 12 steps, a deep landing, 12 steps, a deep landing, and 12 more steps. Ripken was, of course, the champion of the game he invented: He could reach the top in six strides, which was positively Bob Beamon-esque.
But one night before a game, a teammate, Rene Gonzales, made it in six strides, making Ripken only the co-champion. That wasn't good enough. So Ripken went back down to the field and -- now 20 minutes before the start of a major league game -- ran the steps of the Metrodome, and this time, he made it in five strides. All was well again. He was the sole champion of the steps.
"I was a really good ping pong player growing up; I was champion for a three-state region," former Oriole Joe Orsulak said. "I played Cal in ping pong one night. I beat him 24 games in a row. He wouldn't leave until he beat me. He won the 25th game at 2 in the morning."
It is that intersection of competitiveness, commitment, durability and strength that got Ripken -- not just in one piece, but still thriving in every way -- to 1995. The season-long celebration of Ripken's historic march past Gehrig gathered momentum in earnest on Sunday, Sept. 3, during a game with the Mariners at Camden Yards. When the number, which was draped on a side of the warehouse, was changed from 2,127 to 2,128, every Mariner played stood on the top step of the dugout and joined the sellout crowd in cheering Ripken.
The California Angels came to Camden Yards the next day for a three-game series.
"I was in the on-deck circle when that banner saying 2,129 came down in the fifth inning," said Angels second baseman Rex Hudler, a former teammate of Ripken. "I almost started to weep. I had to grab myself and say, 'Hud, not now, man. The next two days are for crying.'"
The next day, fans began milling around Camden Yards at 7 a.m. in anticipation of game No. 2,130. That night, Ripken homered in an 8-0 victory. When the number on the warehouse changed from 2,129 to 2,130, the fans cut loose with an ovation that stopped play for five minutes and 20 seconds. After Ripken waved his hat to the crowd, he looked as his wife, Kelly, who was in the front row of the stands with tears in her eyes. Ripken patted his heart to signify how hard it was pounding.
He said he had several moments "where I had to hold back tears." A 30-minute postgame ceremony followed as the likes of actor Tom Selleck, NBA star David Robinson and local legend Johnny Unitas presented gifts. The most moving presentation was made by Pirates pitcher Jim Gott, who, as a rookie, was the starting pitcher for the Blue Jays against the Orioles on May 30, 1982, the day the streak began. Gott allowed one hit in six innings for his first major league victory that day, and he had kept the game ball. When he walked on the field after 2,130, he gave the ball to Ripken. Floored, Ripken said, "You don't have to do this." Gott said, "I want to."
When Ripken undressed at his locker three hours after the game, two attendants stood by tagging and bagging every piece of clothing he peeled off, preparing them for delivery to trophy cases at the Baseball Hall of Fame and elsewhere. Ripken flipped his protective cup into his locker and said, "I'm keeping this," then finally left the clubhouse. It was 1:48 a.m.
No one was ever better than Ripken at blocking out distractions and just playing, but that night, the night before 2,131, he barely slept.
"I was sweating so much; the sheets and comforter were soaking wet," he said, claiming it was not a fever, just nerves.
He helped get the kids off to school, then went to the ballpark. Teammate Jeff Huson, a journeyman infielder and a platoon third baseman for the Orioles, was thrilled about starting that night. He had been tracking the Angels' pitching rotation for three weeks, trying to figure out if a right-hander might be starting Sept. 6 in Baltimore.
"I thought I had no chance because the Angels had four left-handers in their rotation," Huson said. "Then I saw that [right-hander] Shawn Boskie had come off the disabled list. Then I saw on SportsCenter [that] Friday night that he would be starting on Sept. 6. I jumped in the air and said, 'Yes!'"
The pre-game ceremony included President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore as well as baseball greats Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson. The score was tied, 1-1, in the fourth when Ripken's brother, Billy, called to him from the front row of seats behind home plate. "Way to go," Billy said. After Bobby Bonilla homered to break the tie, Ripken crushed a 3-0 pitch from Boskie deep into the left-field seats, the first time he had homered in three straight games in more than four years.
"I'll never forget that," Billy said. "I shook his hand before he hit that homer."
Bryan Johnson, a fan sitting in the seats in left field with a broken finger on his right hand, caught the ball with his left hand. He was offered thousands of dollars for the ball, but he wanted Ripken to have it and wanted nothing in return. (Ripken later presented Johnson with an autographed bat and ball).
No one who was at the game, or even watched it on TV, will ever forget what occurred a short while later, following the top of the fifth inning, when the game became official. Play stopped at 9:20 p.m. ET, the song "Day One" poured through the P.A. system, black and orange balloons were released, and everyone in the Orioles' bullpen raced to stand in the dugout with Ripken and the rest of the team when the banner changed from 2,130 to 2,131.
"During all that time [chasing Gehrig], I didn't read about it because I didn't want anything to affect me, and I thought it was counterproductive. But now, I'm interested in going back and reading and watching stories about that time." Cal Ripken Jr.
The cheer that went up was perhaps the loudest in the history of Baltimore sports. A fan raised a sign to the sky: "Today, We Consider Ourselves The Luckiest Fans On The Face Of The Earth." With Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time" booming out of the stadium speakers, Ripken emerged from the dugout, took off his cap and waved to the fans. Then he walked over to the front row of seats behind home plate and hugged his wife and two children, Rachel, 5, and Ryan, 2. He took off his jersey and his cap and presented them to his kids. "These are for you," he said.
Huson said, "That's when I lost it. Every father knows what that meant."
There were four more curtain calls before Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro pulled Ripken out of the dugout and made him circle the warning track. As he ran along the track, Ripken slapped hands with fans who were leaning over the rail. When he got to center field, he jumped, balanced on his stomach at the top of the fence and high-fived a few who had leaped from their seats in the bleachers. Along the way, he waved and pointed at specific fans whom he recognized. When he got to the third-base coach's box, he was intercepted by umpires Larry Barnett and Al Clark, both of whom shook his hand. Then Ripken ran to the top step of the Angels' dugout, where all the Angels were standing and clapping. He shook everyone's hand and hugged Carew and Rene Gonzales.
"I was just so honored to be out there," Angels catcher Jorge Fabregas said.
Play was stopped for 22 minutes as people all over the ballpark, including the press box, cried. If there was a more joyful 22 minutes in baseball history, no one could remember it.
After the Orioles' 4-2 victory, Ripken was honored with speeches and gifts, including a 2,131-pound landscape rock with 2,131 chiseled into it. After words of praise from DiMaggio, who had been Gehrig's teammate, Ripken read a speech he had written himself. He thanked four people in particular -- his parents, former teammate Eddie Murray and Kelly -- for making his success possible. The closest his voice came to cracking was when he turned to address Kelly and said, "You, Rachel and Ryan, you are my life."
Ripken was still at his locker at 2:15 a.m., showing friends and associates all the gifts he had received. At 2:45 a.m., baseball's greatest iron man headed through the tunnel from the clubhouse to the parking lot, high-fived a couple of stadium cleanup workers, then hopped in the backseat of a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car with Kelly. Three policemen with motorcycles escorted them out of the lot, roaring past a cluster of screaming fans and one quiet, old gentleman who was holding a sign that read: "Cal, Thank You For Saving Baseball."
Now, 20 years later, Ripken has a perspective of The Streak, and that night, that he has never had.
"During all that time [chasing Gehrig], I didn't read about it because I didn't want anything to affect me, and I thought it was counterproductive," he said. "But now, I'm interested in going back and reading and watching stories about that time. I saw a TV piece that interviewed my dad at his house in 1995. I could see my dad speaking again. That meant a lot. It's been a lot of fun going back to that time. I must say, it was pretty cool."
Now he -- like all of us who were there, and even those who weren't -- gets it.