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Ripken passes Iron Horse

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 1999


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When the record fell, when Cal Ripken Jr. played his 2,131st consecutive game and could finally supplant Lou Gehrig as baseball's Iron Horse, he still treated the occasion as just another night at the office.

This is what Ripken found so intriguing -- that he was being honored not for setting a record for home runs, consecutive hits or some such but simply for showing up and doing his job.

"I never set out to do this," he said. "It hasn't been a lifelong dream of mine. I don't know what to make of it. But by going out and playing every single day, and as luck would have it you stay away from any type of injury, and your career is such that they still write your name in the lineup. Then you look up and say, "I don't know how, I don't know why,' but here I am."

May 30, 1982, was just another day in baseball. Fernando Valenzuela eight-hit the Cubs, Rickey Henderson stole three bases to help Oakland split a doubleheader with the Tigers and, in Baltimore, Ripken went 0-for-2 against Toronto.

The 21-year-old rookie played the next game, and the next, and every game for the rest of the '82 season, and all of '83, and '84 and ... and suddenly we looked up and it was 1995 and game by game another number was added to the Baltimore & Ohio warehouse wall beyond rightfield.

And unlike Roger Maris, who had to put a ball over the wall to get closer to Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a season, and Henry Aaron, who had to do the same to get closer to the Babe's career record of 714 home runs, all Ripken had to do was find his name on the lineup card, step onto the field or into the batter's box and wait for the fifth inning to pass, when the game became official and he was one game closer to Gehrig's record.

And on Sept. 6, 1995, a sellout crowd of 46,217, which included President Clinton and baseball icon Joe DiMaggio, applauded every time Ripken stepped on the field -- and roared its approval when he hit a home run in the fourth inning.

The real celebration began at 9:20:09, when the game, and the record, became official in the middle of the fifth inning. Balloons were released, streamers came down and the new number -- 2,131 -- was unfurled on the B&O warehouse.

Ripken waved to his family while players in front of both dugouts, the California Angels on the field, and the umpires, applauded. He took off his No. 8 jersey and handed it to his wife, Kelly. He held his son, Ryan, and exchanged high-fives, and kissed Kelly and Rachel, his daughter.

He returned to the dugout, but the cheering did not diminish. He came out again and again, waving and patting his chest, as if to give the crowd his heartfelt thanks. Eventually, teammates grabbed him by the arms and pushed him along the stands beyond the dugout. That began Ripken's impromptu victory lap around the stadium, a joyous celebration filled with hand-slaps, high-fives and hugs from fans and players on both teams.

After Baltimore won, he was honored again at home plate.

Then came game No. 2,132, and 2,133 ... and the rest of 1995, and 1996 and '97.

And on Sunday night, Sept. 20, 1998, against the New Yok Yankees, after 16 years and 2,632 consecutive games, and with the Orioles out of the pennant race and playing their final home game of the season, Ripken quietly took himself out of Baltimore's starting lineup.

One out into the game, when it sank in that Ripken was ending the streak, the Yankees stood on the top step of the dugout and applauded. Ripken tipped his hat, stepped back into the Orioles dugout and, with the sellout crowd standing and cheering, came out and bowed once again.


-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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