Monday, September 6, 2010

September 6, 1995: The Iron Bird

BALTIMORE - The whole thing must have felt at least a little corny. In the middle of the fifth inning of a random early September game in Baltimore, the game was stopped, the fans stood and cheered, and a shortstop took a victory lap. Of course, it wasn't quite an ordinary game. Not with the president and vice president in the stands, and the numbers 2131 showing up on the big warehouse in right field.

Usually, you can't predict when a record is going to be broken. Oriole fans, though, were able to circle September 6 on the calendar as soon as the 1995 schedule was released. That was the day that Cal Ripken would break Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. Baseball officials no doubt circled the date, too, as the 1994 strike had been devestating to the sport. They surely saw Ripken's chase for the record as something that could bring back fan interest. The game was hyped as much as it could be.

Along with bringing back interest in the sport, some people even thought Ripken's streak helped end the strike in the first place. With the start of the 1995 season fast approaching and no end to negotiations in sight, the owners started training replacement players to take the field for the next season. Realizing this would mean the end of Ripken's streak, they asked if he'd be willing to take the field with the replacements. Despite having the blessing of the players' union, Ripken refused, and shortly thereafter, whether coincidentally or not, a settlement was reached.

The strike was the last thing on people's minds on September 6, though. The day started with a festive atmosphere. An overflow, sellout crowd in Camden Yards, an ESPN-record large crowd watching on television, political and sports dignitaries in the stands, and Ripken playing short, trying to act like it was just another game.

Of course, Ripken had a flare for the dramatic, too. The night before, in the game in which he tied Lou Gehrig's record, Ripken had homered to punctuate the evening. Now, stepping up to the plate in the 4th inning, he did it again, sending the crowd into a frenzy with a bomb to left field.

When the Angels went down quietly in the top of the fifth, all eyes turned to the large warehouse just outside right field. As Ripken approached the record, the Orioles had put a countdown on the walls of the warehouse, changing the number after the top of the fifth of each game, the moment it became an official game. Now, as "2,131" appeared, fireworks went off, confetti was thrown into the air, and the fans stood and cheered. And cheered, and cheered, and cheered. In all, it was a 22-minute-long standing ovation, one of the longest ever afforded a single athlete. Ripken was reluctant to acknowledge the crowd, uncomfortable with doing it while there was still a game to play, but his teammates pushed him out onto the field. Then, as Ripken stood outside the dugout waving and acknowledging the cheers, he was playfully pushed again, this time to start a victory lap around the field, high-fiving and shaking hands with fans as he went around.

Ripken's streak continued until 1998, when he voluntarily removed himself from the lineup after 2,632 games. His streak lasted 502 more games than Gehrig's and is more than twice as long as the third-longest streak ever, held by Everett Scott. The longest streak since Ripken's ended was by Miguel Tejada, who played in 1,152 straight games before a broken wrist forced him to the disabled list. Coincidentally, Tejada was playing for the Orioles when his streak ended.

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