(Reuters) - Twenty years after breaking the record for consecutive games played, Cal Ripken, Jr. insists the reason the feat remains one of baseball’s most cherished moments is because it involved a trait the average person can understand: a strong work ethic.
”So many people still share their own streak stories with me,“ Ripken said. ”They’ll say they work at a plant or a hospital and haven’t missed a day in 31 years. Kids with perfect attendance, not just for one year but every year of school.
“People clearly relate the record with the importance of showing up,” said Ripken, who is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Sept. 1 as part of a variety of events at Camden Yards to honor the 20th anniversary of the record.
On Sept. 6, 1995, the Baltimore Orioles infielder eclipsed the streak of the legendary Lou Gehrig, delighting not just the adoring crowd at Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards but baseball fans everywhere.
No one, however, was more excited that late summer evening than Bud Selig, Major League Baseball’s commissioner at the time who was desperately seeking an elixir to the game’s woes.
Baseball was just coming off a strike season that saw the World Series canceled over labor issues between rich players and even richer owners. Fans seethed. Enter Ripken, one of the game’s most beloved players, to get them excited again.
”It was a great moment in baseball history,“ recalled Selig, who was at the game. ”It was an emotional night. And it was an important moment in our recovery from the year before.
“Not only did he break a record nobody thought possible, he did it with dignity and class. I’ll never forget Cal’s trip around the field. To be there was a moment in your life you will never, ever forget.”
In adding a touch of theater to playing in his 2,131st straight game, Ripken belted a home run in the fourth inning. The fans cheered so long and so hard, Ripken had to emerge from the dugout several times for curtain calls.
The shy and reserved Ripken recalled teammate Rafael Palmeiro telling him he should take a lap around the ballpark so the game could resume. “I told him there’s no way in the world I‘m going to do that,” Ripken told Reuters in a recent interview.
Ripken was prodded and literally pushed out of the dugout to embark on a lap around the field to high-five the fans, while players on both the Orioles and visiting California Angels stood and applauded.
”It was an amazing experience,“ Ripken said of the impromptu jaunt. ”It was a big celebration but when I went to shake hands with the fans, it became very intimate, personal, one-on-one. I remember recognizing faces, people, and sometimes names.
“By the time I got a quarter of the way around, it didn’t matter anymore to me that the game was still going on. I was enjoying it. It was a people moment, not a baseball moment.”
Ripken was not satisfied with just breaking the record, he was determined to shatter it.
The 19-time All-Star and two-time American League most valuable player decided to end his streak at 2,632 games, having surpassed Gehrig’s previous record by a jaw-dropping 502 games. Until Ripken, no one had come within the equivalent of five seasons’ worth of games, or more than 800, of Gehrig’s mark.
But it was the evening that Ripken broke the record that remains a where-were-you-when moment in the minds of baseball fans.
One fan who missed the moment was current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was working at a Baltimore law firm at the time and was an Orioles season-ticket holder with several friends.
“We drew straws for that game and I lost. My good client friends at Major League Baseball did not come through with a ticket for me,” he said with a laugh. “I was outside (the park) that night. My wife is still mad about missing it.”
Ripken, now 55, not only played in every game during what became known as simply “The Streak,” he played almost every inning.
For months before the record-setting night, large numbers marking Ripken’s current consecutive-game streak were posted on the iconic warehouse along the outfield at Camden Yards.
Six hundred journalists were at the game where, finally, “2,131” was unveiled. Tickets went for thousands of dollars. Ripken was a lifelong Maryland resident and getting to break the record before his hometown team made the event a remarkable experience for Orioles fans.
Some records are impossible to tell when they will occur, like Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark in 2007. But the date of Ripken’s record could be plotted on a calendar, allowing for the celebration to build over time.
”I have two very strong memories of that night,“ said Ripken. ”One was looking up at my dad (former Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr.), catching his eye in the Skybox,“ he said. ”The other is from Rachel, my daughter. She kissed me on the forehead and then realized I was all sweaty.
“She goes, ‘Ewww,’ and wipes the kiss off. I won’t forget that.”
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Alan Crosby