It didn’t save baseball the way Babe Ruth’s home run surge did following the Black Sox World Series-fixing scandal of 1919, but it did provide a soothing balm and helped remind people why they fell in love with the game in the first place. And given the way Major League Baseball is stumbling through its pandemic-punctuated season, the sport — and the nation for that matter — could really use a feel-good story similar to the one Cal Ripken Jr. wrote a quarter-century ago.
On Sept. 6, MLB will mark the silver anniversary of Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak of 2,130. Had COVID-19 not forced fan-less games, there clearly would have been a huge celebration at Camden Yards in Baltimore to commemorate a feat that was voted the top moment in baseball history in a nationwide poll of fans in 1999. It also would have been a nice opportunity for fans to celebrate an even more important milestone — the news that Ripken, who turned 60 on Monday, is cancer-free five months after undergoing prostate surgery.
To truly appreciate the impact of Ripken’s quest from 25 years ago, one must understand the context of the times in which the record was broken. Haggling between billionaire owners and multi-millionaire players had hit rock bottom on Sept. 14, 1994 when Commissioner Bud Selig announced the World Series was being canceled. The news impacted the sports world like a fastball to the noggin. A marquee event that had survived a previous pandemic, two world wars and the Great Depression was being called on account of greed.
When the following season began three weeks late after still more squabbling and threats of replacement players, many turned-off baseball fans vowed to tune out forever. The felled Fall Classic was the last straw for many. Attendance dwindled. TV ratings plummeted. The National Pastime was in deep trouble.
Fortunately, the strike was followed by the streak. And many of those who had given up on baseball slowly returned to the ballpark — especially Camden Yards — and began tuning back in. See, despite his hefty contract and enormous skills, Ripken was a guy fans could relate to. The Baltimore Orioles shortstop punched the clock every day, gave an honest effort every day, even when he wasn’t feeling his best. Fans respected that Ripken played game after game, season after season through sprained ankles, twisted knees, broken toes, flu bugs, jammed fingers, hyper-extended elbows, torn muscles, splitting headaches, a balky back, batting and fielding slumps, and long losing skids. They also respected the generosity and warmth he showed people away from the diamond.
And they admired the ghost Ripken was chasing, too. Gehrig possessed the same indefatigable work ethic, and had become a beloved historical figure for the courage he displayed while facing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a debilitating, fatal neurological disorder that became known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The Iron Man and the Iron Horse clearly were cut from the same flannels. Ripken and Gehrig would become forever linked.
“As a baseball fan, I knew about the record, but it’s not something I ever set out to break,’’ said Ripken, who batted .288 with 23 homers and 75 runs batted in as a member of the Rochester Red Wings in his final minor-league season in 1981. “That streak would have been ludicrous to think about, starting out. It’s really just something that crept up on me, happened over time. It wasn’t until I was closing in on 1,000 games that I started becoming aware of my streak, and that was only because it was a nice, round number and reporters started asking me about it.”
And it wasn’t until he tacked on several hundred more games that he began thinking, maybe, just maybe, Gehrig’s unassailable record might be within reach. There were several occasions when the streak was in jeopardy. The closest call came after Ripken seriously twisted his knee during a bench-clearing brawl with the Seattle Mariners on June 6, 1993. He could barely walk when he awoke the next morning and even phoned his parents to tell them the streak was probably over after 1,790 consecutive starts. But after several hours of treatment, Ripken was back in the lineup.
His managers occasionally considered resting him, but the more they contemplated it, the more they realized how indispensable he was. “There were times when I said, ‘OK, Cal, today’s the day to take a day off,’ ’’ said late Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, who managed him for four seasons. “Then, I started looking at the lineup and thought about all the things he did during the course of a game and I’d say to myself, ‘I don’t want to be without those things. Those are the things that give this ballclub the best chance to win. It’s just too big a hole to fill.’ ’’
Such support spurred Ripken to play on. And on. And on. Some accused Ripken of being selfish, when, in reality, he was being selfless. His teammates were inspired by the way he played not only through injuries and slumps, but on days when he could have taken a day off against superior pitchers, such as Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. “I just believed whether you were a ballplayer or a factory worker or a newspaper reporter, you had an obligation to show up to work each and every day and give it your best even when you weren’t feeling your best,’’ he said. “It wasn’t about the streak. It was about honor and responsibility to your job, and being a good teammate.”
The night he broke the record, nearly 50,000 fans — including President Bill Clinton — packed Camden Yards. They, along with a huge national television audience, looked on as Ripken broke Gehrig’s mark. The festivities were followed by one of the most memorable victory laps in sports history. Oriole teammates Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla pushed Ripken out of the dugout and toward the right field line, and, soon, Ripken was shaking hands, doling out high fives and gazing into the faces of teary-eyed fans. “During that jaunt around the ballpark, it dawned on me what the streak really meant to people,’’ he said. “I think the fans wanted a reason to be able to fall back in love with the game after being turned off by the work stoppage and cancellation of the 1994 World Series — and the streak gave them a reason to.”
Ripken would play 501 more games in a row before removing himself from the lineup before a game against the New York Yankees on Sept. 20, 1998. To put his achievement into perspective, 3,713 MLB players went on the disabled list during his streak. Ripken played his last game in 2001, ending a 21-year career with first-ballot Hall of Fame numbers: 3,184 hits, 431 homers, 1,695 RBI, 19 All-Star selections and two Most Valuable Player Awards. He would team with legendary San Diego Padres hitter Tony Gwynn to establish another record in 2007 when the dynamic duo attracted a crowd of 82,000 to the outskirts of Cooperstown — the largest throng ever to attend a Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Four years earlier, Ripken had been inducted into the Red Wings Hall of Fame, a fitting honor not only because of the International League Rookie-of-the-Year honors he won with the team 29 years ago, but also because of his affinity for a city he considered his second baseball home. He actually spent another summer in Irondequoit, as a 9-year-old, back in 1969, when his father, Cal Sr., managed the Wings. Twelve years later, Junior would spend time at both third base and shortstop for the Wings. That season, he played in the 33-inning marathon against the Pawtucket Red Sox, going 2-for-13 in what remains the longest game in professional baseball history. Not surprisingly, he played in 114 consecutive games for the Wings before his promotion to Baltimore in August that season.
“Rochester holds a lot of special memories for me,’’ he told me several years ago. “I made a lot of good friends there and we had a lot of fun. It was a place where I finally developed the confidence to believe I was ready to play at the big-league level.”
His final baseball destination wound up being Cooperstown. He got there by not missing a game for 15 consecutive years. It’s a streak that will never be broken. A streak that reminded people why they fell in love with the game in the first place. A feel-good story baseball and the nation could use right now.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.