Ripken passes Gehrig in style

The Associated Press

BALTIMORE The ovation had been building for more than a decade, and when it came for Cal Ripken, it would not stop. From all corners of Camden Yards they cheered, an outpouring of adoration for a hometown hero that lasted 22 minutes and 15 seconds in all.

Patting his heart, Ripken seemed almost hesitant to accept their accolades Wednesday night. And then, with a thank-you lap of the park, the fans saw something really special the transformation of reliable, good ol' Cal into a baseball immortal.

Ripken reached that place by breaking Lou Gehrig's unbreakable record when he played his 2,131st consecutive game, becoming the most dependable, most durable athlete in the history of America's oldest sport.

Ripken started his big night by catching the ceremonial first-pitches from his children, then highlighted it by hitting a home run in the fourth inning, his third homer in three nights. Moments later the game between his Baltimore Orioles and California became official and he was in the record book for now and probably forever.

More than a half-century after Gehrig was forced out of the lineup by a deadly disease, Ripken streaked past him as baseball's new Iron Man with a string stretching more than 13 years, likely making him the last of his kind.

And, ever important to Ripken, his team won. He had two hits and played flawlessly in the field as the Orioles beat the Angels 4-2.

Gracefully, as always, he slipped into his hallowed place.

He did not cry like Pete Rose did after breaking Ty Cobb's hit record. He did not boast, ''I am the greatest!'' like Rickey Henderson did after he surpassed Lou Brock's stolen base record.

No, when the 10-foot numbers on the B&O Warehouse beyond right field dropped down to reveal 2-1-3-1 and the fireworks exploded overhead, he merely emerged from the dugout, waved to his family and saluted the cheers of the Orioles and Angels players, all four umpires, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and the entire crowd of 46,272.

As Whitney Houston's ''One Moment in Time'' played on the speaker system, Ripken reluctantly let himself be pushed out of the dugout by his teammates.

Like the streak itself, his victory lap did not seem planned. Instead, it just happened, and as he made his way around the entire warning track, he especially sought out the hands of the young to shake and slap with high fives.

Ripken, who recently said he did not want the game stopped on his behalf, seemed at peace during the whole celebration. He did not address the crowd, however; that was coming at a postgame tribute on the field.

Once resentful that he might be known only for his streak he's won two AL MVP awards, been a 13-time All-Star, hit more home runs than any shortstop ever and set nearly a dozen fielding records Ripken seemed happy, and a bit relieved it was all over.

Ripken's string of starting every game for more than 13 years seems even more unbreakable than when Gehrig set the mark in 1939. Major leaguers rarely play every game even in a single month in fact, the second-longest active streak belongs to Frank Thomas at just 235.

Ripken always has said he is not playing for the streak. If he was, there would be one more to aim for Sachio Kinugasa played 2,215 straight games in Japan's major leagues from 1970-87.

During the ceremony, in which Ripken took eight curtain calls, he took off his No. 8 jersey and handed it to his wife and two children, revealing a black T-shirt he wore that said on the back: ''2,130+ HUGS AND KISSES FOR DADDY.''

Ripken shook hands with his brother Billy, his long-time second base partner with the Orioles who took a day off from his Triple-A Buffalo team and missed a minor league playoff game to attend.

When he came to the Angels' dugout, Ripken went down the line shaking every hand while Bobby Bonilla and other Orioles captured the event on video cameras.

Watching from the stands were Joe DiMaggio, who played with Gehrig and had a streak of his own 56 consecutive games with at least one hit former Oriole star Frank Robinson, Ripken's first major-league manager, Earl Weaver, and Ripken's father, Cal Sr.

Clinton got Ripken's picture and autograph before the game, then cautioned the Orioles star not to hurt his wrist with writer's cramp. In the third inning, speaking from ESPN's broadcast booth, Clinton noted how Ripken's streak has prompted news stories about other dedicated workers.

''I think these stands are full of people who do their jobs and are not recognized,'' Clinton said. ''... These people make the country go. Cal Ripken has made heroes of them all.''

To Ripken, breaking Gehrig's record has just been a matter of wanting to play, of showing up each day at work ready to do a job. Earlier Wednesday, Ripken had another job: getting his 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, to her first day of school.

Later, Rachel and son Ryan, 2, threw out the ceremonial first balls from a first-base box where his wife, Kelly, sat.

For fans lucky enough to be inside, it was a riveting moment, just like the night Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record or the night Rose passed Cobb.

Set more than a half-century ago, Gehrig's 2,130-game string was once considered one of those unbreakable barriers, too, up there with the hitting streak of DiMaggio and the 511 wins by Cy Young.

Since Ripken started his streak on May 30, 1982, there have been 3,712 major league players on the disabled list. Other teams, meanwhile, have used 517 starting shortstops.

All things considered, Ripken, 35, has made it with relative ease. He has never broken a bone in his life, has never been knocked out of a game by a pitch (he's been hit 44 times during his streak) and has never been wiped out badly while turning a double play at shortstop.

In 1981 as a minor leaguer, he played in the longest game in professional baseball history, a 33-inning struggle between his Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. Ripken played all 33 innings.

Later that summer, he made his major league debut as a pinch-runner and scored the winning run, waved home by his dad, Cal Sr., the Orioles' third base coach and eventually Cal Jr.'s manager.

The next year, he started his streak as a third baseman Weaver moved him to shortstop 27 games later and soon thereafter began a 51/2-year string in which he played 8,243 consecutive innings.

Only last month, there was Ripken, late at night and long after the game ended at the Kingdome in Seattle, throwing batting practice for pitcher Ben McDonald, just for fun.

The balls Ripken and McDonald used that night, however, were not the same ones the Orioles and Angels played with. For the first time in major league history, a ball bearing a player's name was used; a special batch was stamped with Ripken's name and a logo marking the event.

Among those in attendance were 260 fans who paid $5,000 each to sit in special boxes built down each line. The proceeds were to go to charity, including a fund for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Gehrig's streak in which he started all but three times ended on May 2, 1939, when he asked out of the lineup because he was too weak to play. He had gone 0-for-4 and stranded runners each time in game No. 2,130, and would never play again.

On July 4, 1941, a month after he died, a plaque honoring Gehrig was placed in Yankee Stadium, praising him as a man ''whose amazing record of 2130 consecutive games should stand for all time.''

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