Sept. 21, 1998
By Greg Shea
The sun didn’t rise. The clocks stopped. High tide never came.
Baltimore legend Cal Ripken took himself out of the lineup Sunday, ending his immortal streak of 2,632 consecutive games played. Ripken told manager Ray Miller that “I think the time is right.”
Miller blotted Ripken’s name off the lineup card in heavy black ink. It was the first time since May 29, 1982 that Ripken’s name was not penciled in on the sheet.
The decision caused a delayed reaction in the Camden Yards crowd and from the visiting Yankees. After the game started, the crowd perked up in a “Wait, where are my shoes?” kind of way. It was as if the 7:45 bus didn’t show up and nobody noticed until 7:55.
One out into the first inning when it was clear Ripken was not playing, the Yankees climbed to the top step of the dugout to salute the 38-year-old Ripken. Ripken hopped out to tip his cap to the crowd. That was it. Finito. The streak was over.
The fans rushed out to the souvenir stand in a mad scramble for programs to commemorate the game. Word leaked out at a frantic pace. The Iron Man was at rest.
Lately, the streak had become a burden. After Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games on Sept. 5, 1995, each game became a new record with new questions. Ripken tired of the constant questioning of when it would end and whether it should end.
“It reached a point where it was time to change the subject,” Ripken said. “It was time to restore the focus back on the team.”
Ripken spoke calmly after the game. He’d given this serious thought, it was not a fly-by-night decision. He even had concern for those fans out there who might be saddened by the passing of the streak, a monstrosity bigger than Ripken.
“Don’t be sad, be happy,” Ripken said. “I just felt the timing was right. It was important to do it here, to make it a celebration.”
And celebrate he did, spending time on the bench, in the bullpen and even chatting with fans in the outfield. He wouldn’t admit it, but it looked as if the weight of the streak had been lifted from his shoulders.
The beauty of Ripken’s streak was its simplicity. The rooster crowed and Cal played that day. It was as involuntary as a beating heart, and every bit as enduring.
“When I look back, I’m proud that my teammates, my managers could count on me.” Ripken said. “There’s a sense of pride that this is my job and this is how I go about my job.”
The streak began on May 30, 1982. Ronald Reagan was in his first term. The Soviet Union was a world power led by Leonid Brezhnev, who died later in the year. Moviegoers were flocking to a movie called E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. American Fool was one of the top albums by John Cougar. You might know him now as John Mellencamp. People watched Hill Street Blues on TV. John Updike won a Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit is Rich.
Much has changed since then, but Ripken was the one constant. Every day during baseball season he was there. He provided an equilibrium to a world gone mad. Your life could be hell. You could be fired from your job, you could be getting a divorce, but goshdarnit, that Ripken kid was still playing ball. Even if it didn’t make you feel better, you at least knew you were in the right place.
That it ended with little warning was Ripken’s little surprise to us all. He told manager Ray Miller before the game and then called owner Peter Angelos. Miller crossed Ripken’s name off the lineup card. Rookie Ryan Minor started in his place.
And that was it. It ended where it began. The world will go on, maybe not as baseball fans once knew it, but it will.
Still, something’s a little off kilter.
Somewhere peanut butter’s out looking for the jelly. Ham is searching for the cheese. Thunder can’t find lightning.
Cal Ripken Jr. and the streak are no more.
Copyright Real Fans, Inc., 1998.