Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on January 20, 2014, and is reprinted here by permission.
After Cal Ripken Jr. tied Lou Gehrig’s “unbreakable” record of 2,130 consecutive games played on September 5, 1995, he told reporters, “I’m not in the business of script-writing, but if I were, this would’ve been a pretty good one.”
On that Tuesday night in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles’ future Hall of Fame shortstop punctuated his record-tying appearance with a home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, one of his three hits against the California Angels at Camden Yards.
The following night, Ripken homered again as he broke Gehrig’s famous mark in front of President Bill Clinton, a national television audience on ESPN, and a sellout crowd of 46,272 at Camden Yards. The game was delayed for 22 minutes in the middle of the fifth inning as Ripken took a memorable celebratory lap around the ballpark. Ripken’s streak was a feel-good tonic that baseball fans craved after losing the 1994 postseason and the start of the 1995 regular season to a labor dispute between players and owners.
Many great athletes have a flair for the dramatic, but Cal’s sense of it was keener than most. As a native Baltimorean and lifelong Ripken fan, I was fortunate enough to witness many of these special moments throughout his career, especially during key moments of his streak. He was the first great player I was aware of as a baseball fan, and I followed his career closely all the way to Cooperstown.
He performed at his best not just when the spotlight was at its brightest but when his fans were rooting most for him to hit the big home run. As much as any player since Babe Ruth, Ripken lived up to his reputation as a beloved hero who never let his fans down.
That trait was evident beginning on Opening Day in 1982, when Ripken homered in the first at-bat of his Rookie of the Year season. Later that year, as his streak reached an early milestone of 100 consecutive games on September 14, he hit a grand slam to beat the New York Yankees and help keep the Orioles in the thick of the American League East race.
When the streak reached 250 games, on September 3, 1983, Ripken homered twice against the Minnesota Twins, the start of a blistering final month in which he hit .393 and clinched the AL’s Most Valuable Player Award. Behind the 22-year-old Ripken and switch-hitting first baseman Eddie Murray, the Orioles captured their third World Series title in five games over the Philadelphia Phillies.
While it received scant attention at the time, Ripken also homered in milestone consecutive games 500 (1985); 750 (1986); 1,000 (1988); and 1,500 (1991). Full disclosure: I attended that July 19, 1991, game against the Seattle Mariners at Memorial Stadium. It was noted afterward that Lou Gehrig had also homered in his 1,500th consecutive game back in 1934. Ripken won his second MVP award in 1991.
All of that was just a prelude to the anticipation surrounding Ripken’s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game on September 6, 1995. As Ripken prepared to break a durability record that few thought would ever be approached, fans were itching to celebrate baseball’s Iron Man. Ripken, as usual, made sure the fans went home happy.
In the fourth inning, four pitches after teammate Bobby Bonilla had broken a 1-1 tie with a homer off Angels starter Shawn Boskie, Ripken slammed a line drive over the fence in deep left field, setting off a jubilant celebration at Camden Yards. “Who wrote this script?” ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman exclaimed as Ripken circled the bases.
The truth is, Ripken had been writing a script like that throughout his career. And he saved the best for last.
Fast forward to 2001. The Streak was over — Ripken had voluntarily ended it on September 20, 1998, after 2,632 consecutive games. By then, the Orioles had moved the aging Ripken to third base, a less demanding position than shortstop. But he was struggling through an injury-plagued 21st season with the Orioles. It was time to retire.
When Ripken announced his retirement in mid-June, effective at the end of the 2001 season, it was clear that a great weight was lifted off his shoulders. And as fans in every major league city the Orioles visited flocked to the ballpark to witness Ripken’s farewell tour that summer, the 40-year-old put on quite a show.
Ripken’s retirement tour began July 10 at the All-Star Game in Seattle, where he was voted in as a starter for the 17th time. Ripken homered to lead off the third inning off Chan Ho Park of the Los Angeles Dodgers, sending the American League to a 4-1 victory and earning Ripken All-Star Game MVP honors.
The Orioles began the second half with an interleague series in Atlanta, where Ripken had enjoyed the best day of his career in 1999, going 6-for-6 with two home runs, five runs scored and six RBI against the Braves.
An enthusiastic crowd of 50,069 showed up on July 14, 2001, to see Ripken for the last time. As usual, he did not disappoint. In the sixth inning, he broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run home run off John Burkett. Before his final at-bat in the eighth, the Atlanta fans gave Ripken a standing ovation. On Steve Reed’s fourth pitch, Ripken launched a low line drive over the fence in left-center field for his second home run of the game.
The pattern repeated itself in the next three cities that the Orioles visited. Three nights later against the Marlins, Ripken homered off A.J. Burnett in his final game in Miami. On July 26 against the Rangers, he homered off Darren Oliver in his last game in Arlington, Texas. The next night in Anaheim, he went deep off Angels starter Scott Schoeneweis in the second inning.
Ripken’s second-half surge delighted fans at home and on the road. After entering the All-Star break batting .243, Ripken hit safely in 28 of the Orioles’ next 32 games. He homered in 11 of the 17 cities he played in during the 2001 season, and received standing ovations and tributes in all of them.
It was a fitting end to his career. Ripken was arguably the most beloved ballplayer of his generation, and a large part of the reason why because so many fans left the ballpark happy after coming to see him. He wasn’t always the greatest player on the field, but any fan could appreciate that he showed up and worked hard every day. (His well-known habit of signing hundreds of autographs near the third-base stands before and after games didn’t hurt his popularity either.)
Ripken wasn’t flashy enough to be a Hollywood star. But from the beginning of his Hall of Fame career until the end, he couldn’t have written a better script.