A Victory Lap
The fans sent wave after wave of cheers into a warm, late-summer night by the Chesapeake Bay, their ovation lasting three minutes, five, eight .?.?. so long that the umpires finally decided not to try to restart the game until the noise subsided. The Baltimore Orioles and California Angels had only played four and a half innings in Baltimore on September 6, 1995. Their game was just half over. And the longer the fans cheered, the more Cal Ripken Jr., the Orioles’ shortstop, whose historic feat was being celebrated, was becoming embarrassed about the length of the delay.
The Orioles were out of the American League playoff race, but the Angels had a shot at winning their division, so it mattered that they trailed Baltimore by two runs at the brick-and-wrought-iron ballpark known as Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Their pitcher, Shawn Boskie, had warmed up for the bottom of the fifth inning. He was ready to go. His teammates were at their defensive positions, also ready. But the cheering for Ripken was so persistent that the game could not possibly resume, and now Boskie was cooling down, seemingly a disadvantage.
Trying to quell the ovation, Ripken had twice emerged from the Orioles’ dugout, waving his arms and patting his heart to acknowledge the cheers and indicate his appreciation. He was deeply touched. But he hoped his gesture would bring the celebration to a close, much like an actor’s curtain call on a Broadway stage. He owed that to the Angels, he thought. But the fans just kept cheering. If anything, they were getting louder.
Ripken’s teammates had convinced him to take the second curtain call, thinking that would end the ovation and enable the game to resume. But it did not, and now Ripken was back on the dugout bench, shaking his head, smiling, and wondering what he could do to stop the noise raining down from the stands.
“Hey, why don’t you go run around the field or something?” shouted Rafael Palmeiro, Baltimore’s first baseman, who stood in front of Ripken.
Ripken looked at him with a quizzical expression. Run around the field?
Palmeiro shrugged. “I don’t know. Go out there and shake their hands,” he continued. “Maybe that will get them to stop.”
As Ripken pondered the idea, Palmeiro quickly repeated it, adding with a shout, “You need to go out there!”
Another veteran teammate, Bobby Bonilla, picked up on the suggestion. Seated next to Ripken on the bench, Bonilla leaned over and shouted in his teammate’s ear, “Junior, if you don’t go out there, we may never finish this game!”
Ripken gave a halfhearted smile, clearly unconvinced. Spontaneous gestures made him uncomfortable. He was a planner, a pragmatist. Whatever endeavor he undertook, on or off the baseball diamond, he researched it, reflected on it, devised an approach, and saw it through. “He wore a watch in batting practice to make sure everything ran on time. That’s how organized and precise he was in everything he did,” recalled Phil Regan, the Orioles’ manager in 1995. And running around the field in the middle of this historic game was not in Ripken’s plans.
Honestly, he thought it sounded ridiculous. Who had ever heard of such a thing? The game was his day at the office, a sacred time reserved for focusing on his job, his craft, his teammates and opponents. Interacting with fans was the last thing he should do, even on a night history was being made. Ripken’s father, a crusty baseball lifer, had taught him the sport’s sober code of conduct. Respect the game. Let your performance do your talking. The game matters more than you.
Running around the field and shaking hands with fans in the fifth inning was antithetical to everything Ripken believed. But Palmeiro was not interested in debating philosophy. He just wanted to get the game going again.
He grabbed Ripken by the shoulders and pulled the six-foot-four, 230-pound shortstop up the dugout steps. Bonilla joined in, holding Ripken’s left arm. They pulled him onto the field, dragged him a few steps, and playfully shoved him down the right-field foul line. Ripken, laughing, offered no resistance.
“Pushing him out of the dugout wasn’t planned. We didn’t talk about it beforehand or anything,” Palmeiro recalled. “The fans were just so incredibly into the situation. It was a nonstop ovation. As long as Cal sat in the dugout, we might still be sitting there. When we said, ‘Go run around the field or something,’ he wouldn’t do it. So we pushed him out there.”
The fans roared at the sight of Ripken back on the field. He took several wandering steps, hugged one of the Orioles’ coaches, and waved. Palmeiro’s idea echoed in his mind. Run around. Shake hands with them.
“OK,” Ripken thought. “I’ll try it.”
It was the strangest of baseball celebrations when you thought about it ?— ?not the product of an awe-inducing home run barrage, prodigious career hit record, or any of the kinds of spectacular achievements that usually generated acclaim. Ripken was in the spotlight for the simplest of baseball acts: Just being on the field. Playing. As opposed to not playing.
His repertoire of talents included much more than just his enduring presence, of course. A sure-handed fielder and reliably productive hitter, he would earn two American League Most Valuable Player awards and make 15 All-Star Game appearances by the end of his 21-year major league career. The first shortstop to accumulate 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, he would alter basic notions about his position. Once he came along, a shortstop could hit for power and anchor a lineup as well as solidify his team’s infield defense. When Ripken was eligible for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 2007, an overwhelming 98.6 percent of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s voters said he belonged.
Yet the most outstanding aspect of his career was the fact that he played in 2,632 straight games, all for the Orioles.
For more than 16 years, from May 30, 1982, through September 19, 1998, he was ever present in Baltimore’s lineup. The Orioles’ fortunes careened through soaring highs, such as a World Series triumph, and appalling lows, such as a season-opening 21-game losing streak. Ripken never rested. They made seven managerial changes, including the hiring and firing of Ripken’s father. He continued to play. The United States went through four presidential election seasons, electing Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.?W. Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Clinton again in 1996. Ripken never missed a game.
Along the way, he badly sprained an ankle, twisted a knee in a brawl, bowled over catchers in home-plate collisions, was hit by dozens of pitches, fought the flu, developed a serious back ailment, and grew from a callow youngster to a middle-aged father of two. But he never suffered an injury that forced him to stop playing, and he never said he was so tired that he needed to take a game off.
No major leaguer had ever played so continuously without interruption, and his consecutive-game streak eventually earned a place