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Memories and stories connect generations

Why Baseball History Matters, Scene 1
The place: Camden Yards in Baltimore. The date: Sept. 6, 1995.

There are moments in baseball that couldn't possibly happen in any other sport. This was one of them.

Most baseball history is made with no notice, with no warning. But not on this night.

On this night, 46,272 spectators arrived at Camden Yards knowing exactly what they were about to witness -- and even when they would witness it.

Halfway through this game, the second it became official, Cal Ripken Jr. would finally break Lou Gehrig's legendary iron-man record. He knew it. His teammates knew it. Everyone in America knew it.

There was no reason for this particular moment to turn into one of the most powerful and emotional experiences in the lifetimes of those who witnessed it. But somehow, it did.

What we remember is this: The Orioles played this exactly right. They didn't schlock up the occasion with phony announcements or scoreboard overkill. Mostly, they just unfurled a number on a wall:

2,131.

And grown men cried for the next 20 minutes. Cried. Wept. Couldn't stop.

How did that happen, anyway? Why did it happen?

Here's why: It happened because baseball matters.

It matters to us in a way that no other sport matters.

There is no number in any other sport that could possibly be draped on the side of a warehouse and evoke the tears and passions that 2,131 evoked. None.

For 24 hours, the number 2,130 had hung on that wall. Everyone who saw it knew exactly what it meant:

Lou Gehrig: 2,130 games in a row, a record that could never be broken.

So to see that number change was all it took to unleash the earthquake in our souls that erupts when we realize we are witnessing something powerful and moving.

There is no sane reason that the rewriting of any line in any record book should be that moving. But this was a night that made it all so clear.

These aren't just numbers, not in this sport. They are numbers that tell stories. They are numbers that connect names and memories and generations.

Just the numbers alone can make you remember another night, deep in your past, at some other ballpark -- maybe one that no longer stands.

They can make you remember what it felt like to watch Nolan Ryan throw a baseball, or Mike Schmidt swing a bat, or Rickey Henderson pump toward second base.

They can almost make you feel what your grandfather might have felt as he watched Stan Musial come to his town. Or Ted Williams. Or Lou Gehrig.

They can bring back voices, freeze-frames, black-and-white images buried so securely in the back of your memory banks, you'd forgotten they were still rattling around inside you.

All sports have their memories, because memories are what sports are all about. But in baseball, we don't have to cue the marching band or the video machines to sledge-hammer anybody into remembering.

In baseball, we don't need anything more obvious or complicated than a number on a wall.

Why Baseball History Matters, Scene 2
The place: Ancient Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The date: Sept. 28, 1999.

To the people who didn't get it, Tiger Stadium was just another rusting mass of steel and concrete by September of 1999, a decrepit structure made obsolete by peeling paint, obstructed views and modern baseball economics.

But we know better. Those of us who get it know these places where we go to watch baseball games are not just buildings. They house much, much more than grass and dirt and half-eaten hot dogs.

They house our heroes and our heartaches. They house our passions and our memories. They house the seats where our fathers sat with their fathers. So after a while, they come to mean more to us than just about any place in the world.

Which means saying goodbye to them isn't easy, even when we know it's time.

By Sept. 28, 1999, it was time for Tiger Stadium. Time for goodbye.

So on this day, the day of the 6,873rd and final game at this historic place, 18-year-old Aaron Scheible led his 80-year-old grandfather, Ben Saperstein, to a pair of seats in the lower grandstand beyond first base. It was a special gift, from grandson to grandfather. Just like Tiger Stadium.

It had been 72 years since Ben Saperstein's first game in this ballpark: Tigers versus the '27 Yankees. He could still see that game in his mind's eye as vividly as he saw it then.

He pointed toward a spot in the left field bleachers. That was where he and his big brother sat that day. Then he pointed again -- toward the perfectly clipped grass in right field.

"And Babe," he said, "was right out there."

There used to be many parks in this land where a grandfather could utter those words to a grandson. With the passing of Tiger Stadium, however, there are only three: Fenway, Wrigley and Yankee Stadium.

Ty Cobb played baseball in these places. So did Walter Johnson. And Rogers Hornsby. And Jimmie Foxx. So you felt their presence when you walked through those gates.

"Every great player that ever played, just about, played in this stadium," former Tiger Darrell Evans told us on Tiger Stadium's final day. "So you always felt you'd better go out and not embarrass yourself, because you felt like those guys were sitting right next to you, saying, 'You'd better carry on that tradition.'"

And in baseball, that's exactly what these men do. They don't just play games. They pass on a great American tradition, from one generation to the next, to the next.

And in baseball, that's exactly what these men do. They don't just play games. They pass on a great American tradition, from one generation to the next, to the next.

You don't notice that torch being passed. But then one day, that torch is flickering in front of your eyes, reminding you that what you just witnessed hadn't happened since April 23, 1936, when Goose Goslin did it.

Which is when you turn to your grandfather and ask: "Who was Goose Goslin?" And he knows everything about him worth knowing. Still.

Somehow, that explains why these places where baseball is played aren't mere stadiums. They're national historic landmarks.

They bring our memories back to life. They bring our grandfathers back to life. They connect these games and these players to the plot lines of our own lives.

Maybe that explains why we care so much. Why we care about these games. Why we care about these players. Why we care about these places where all they do is play baseball in front of our eyes.

But it absolutely explains why Aaron Scheible had no choice but to take his grandfather to Tiger Stadium on its final day in business. And Aaron Scheible knew exactly what he would say if anyone at school the next day asked him where he'd been.

"I'll tell them," he said, "that I went to history class."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.