An appreciation for No. 8 as he heads to the Hall
By Matthew Taylor
The following memory came to mind as I prepare to visit Cooperstown for Cal's Hall of Fame induction ...
Cal’s 2,131st consecutive game stands out among baseball accomplishments in many ways. One of the record’s simple beauties is that it was predictable. We knew entering the 2005 season that, barring serious injury and/or weather-related cancellations, Cal would break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak on Sept. 6, 1995. Rarely is a historical baseball moment so predictable. For one season the game, like the player, gave us just what we expected.
I gained a greater appreciation for the predictability of Cal’s consecutive games record four years later when I attempted to be in the seats for the Iron Man’s 400th home run, a considerably less-knowable effort.
Cal hit home run No. 399 on Sunday, July 25, 1999, in an 8-7 victory over the (then) Anaheim Angels. Thirty-five games later, on Sept. 2, 1999, Cal homered in an 11-6 victory over the Devil Rays to reach the 400 mark. Cal always saved his greatest work for the month of September.
Sixteen of the 35 games between home runs 399 and 400 were played at Camden Yards. The game during which I thought Cal would go deep was a Thursday afternoon contest on July 29 against the Texas Rangers. I played hooky from work to see it happen. It wasn’t the Devil who made me do it; it was Ken Rosenthal.
I’ve written before about my rocky parasocial relationship with Rosenthal, the one-time Sun columnist who suggested on multiple occasions that Cal needed to end The Streak. However, on the morning of July 29, 1999, Rosenthal’s column did more to entice than incite. I can’t track down the original piece, but my memory of Rosenthal’s sentiments remains vivid.
Rosenthal painted a beautiful baseball portrait. When better for Cal to hit his 400th home run than today, the writer asked rhetorically, on a beautiful afternoon at Camden Yards, right before the team heads out on a six-game road trip? Baseball lore suggests he’ll do it before a home crowd. Today could be the day. Today will be the day. You don’t want to miss it.
Before that Thursday I had skipped work for baseball only once, on Oct. 15, 1997, Game 6 of the ALCS. (Skipping school is another story.) The Orioles lost 1-0 to Cleveland in extra innings, but it was well worth it. So, on July 29, I decided once more to ditch work and head to the ballpark.
In the bottom of the 3rd, Cal, batting seventh, strode to the plate to lead off the inning. The Birds trailed by a run. In keeping with baseball etiquette, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded the archetypal hometown hero. I, like 43,710 others around me, desperately wanted to witness baseball history.
Almost on cue, Cal ripped a screaming drive into the shadows of the left field line. From my upper deck seat I couldn’t tell if the ball had cleared the fence, which only heightened the sense of anticipation.
“Go to war, Miss Agnes?”
More like, “Go to second base, Mr. Ripken.”
Cal’s shot fell inches short of the seats. Instead of his 400th career home run, we were treated to his 22nd double of the season. It was his only hit of the day on a 1-for-3 afternoon.
More than a month later Cal hit the first of his final 32 career home runs, No. 400 of 431. My cousin, who rarely attends O’s games in person, was at Camden Yards that night. A stranger at a Westminster gas station randomly gave him his ticket.
Cal Ripken is one of only seven players to record 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. The latter achievement happened at home, as did games 2,130 and 2,131 of his consecutive games streak. I wasn’t at the ballpark for any of those history-making moments.
Nevertheless, I did witness many of Cal’s great nights at the ballpark during his 21-year career. Considering that the Iron Man is defined most by his consistency and workmanlike efforts, this seems fitting.
Thanks for the memories, Cal. All of them.
Read more fan memories in The Sun's special "Honoring the Iron Man" section.