BALTIMORE, MD —
In September of 1995, baseball was in rough shape.
The strike of 1994 had bled into 1995, creating a slightly shortened season and no defending World Champion since the prior years World Series had been cancelled.
The World Series had only been cancelled once before (1904), and plenty of fans did not welcome back baseball with open arms.
Baseball needed a savior, and Cal Ripken, Jr. was the man for the job. Having not missed a game since May 30, 1982, Ripken was on pace to break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak in September of the 1995 season.
As a 13 year old living at the beach, my adolescent summers weren’t often wrapped up in following pennant races on TV. I was a very casual baseball fan and then the strike pretty much wiped me out. Still, as Ripken approached Gehrig’s record, even at 13 I knew this was a big deal and I got swept up in the historic moment.
On the night 46,272 baseball fans packed Camden Yards, there were six games in the major leagues that drew 15,000 or less; including Yankee Stadium. Attendance across the country was at historic lows and baseball was no longer the king of professional sports in America.
In 1995, people were not watching baseball in any great quantity, but on September 6th, all eyes in the sports world were on Cal. When that game became official in the 5th inning against the California Angels, a magical 15 minutes took place that not even Chris Berman could ruin.
Ripken took several curtain calls until he was finally pushed by Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro out onto the field for a long lap around Camden Yards as the Orioles faithful went nuts. Hell, even the Angels player hugged him as he made his way past their dugout.
On Tuesday, almost 20 years removed from one of the most historic nights in Camden Yards history and baseball history, the Baltimore Orioles celebrated the 20th anniversary of the night Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak.
I made my way up I-95 North to catch the festivities, see Ripken throw out the first pitch and watch some baseball in what’s still my favorite ballpark (even after visiting PNC Park two weeks ago).
Anniversaries like this can often be ruined by an overzealous marketing department that wants to turn every aspect of a moment into branding and dollar signs. Credit the Orioles for letting the moment breathe, with minimal interruptions or empty marketing campaigns.
Sure, Baltimore based Heavy Seas did create a special brew commemorating the anniversary called “Fielder’s Choice”. You won’t see me complaining about a beer promo; it was damn good too.
On a hot, soupy evening in Charm City, the night the streak was broken was played on the scoreboard. The warehouse was adorned with the 2131 banners that were famously unfurled in 1995 when the streak was broken. Baltimore limped into the game on a woeful losing streak, but the pregame events of this evening diverted the fans attention to brighter days. I even saw a few tears.
The buzz grew as the arrival of Ripken to toss the first pitch was imminent. Cal slowly emerged from the Orioles dugout, trading laughs with Manny Machado (coincidentally the current owner of the unbreakable consecutive games played streak) and engaged some fans in the first few rows, before striding out onto the field to fulfill his pregame duties alongside former teammate and current Orioles front office exec Brady Anderson.
Ripken greeted the 23,000 fans in attendance once more before delivering the pitch from about halfway between the mound and home plate. He revealed after the game he’d flown over his handle bars riding his bike earlier that day and had injured his shoulder, creating a slam dunk narrative for local writers about how once more, Cal had played through it rather than sat out.
The game itself, was a bucket of ice water on the warm vibes the Camden Yards crowd had been feeling, as well as a reminder that the Orioles season was cratering rapidly.
The Tampa Bay Rays got to Chris Tillman in the 4th inning, a deficit the Birds couldn’t recover from as Rays starter Drew Smyly tossed 10 strike outs over 7 innings and catcher J.P. Arencebia had a career night, knocking in six runs.
With a belly full of Heavy Seas Ripken beers, soft shell crab and Old Bay, I settled into my insanely awesome yet inexpensive seat to watch an unexpected game within the game. Being 12 rows back from home plate, nearly 75% of the guys sitting between me and the field were major league scouts.
With radar rifle scopes in hand and giant scorebooks in their laps, middle aged guys from the Phillies, Twins, Reds and Royals, among other teams slowly trickled into their seats before first pitch, exchanged pleasantries and got to work.
They were a quirky bunch, all locked into the game and oblivious to all the outside ballpark distractions like beer vendors, scoreboard antics and foul balls blooping into the crowd. The highlight for me was when one of them uttered something to one of the Phillies scouts, who turned back to the guy, flashed a huge smile and said with mock delight, “I slept in my car last night.”
As the game dissolved into a Rays blow out, September call ups for both teams made appearances and Orioles fans made disappearances. I headed towards the exits during garbage time and turned my dial to 105.7 just in time to hear Joe Angel make the call for Chris Davis’s 36th home run of the year, salvaging a potential Oriole shutout in the bottom of the 9th.
I thought about Ripken’s accomplishment as I drove home, and how it brought people like my father back to baseball. On the night Ripken broke Gehrig’s streak, my father was 55 and the year before had sworn off of baseball due to the work stoppage.
A lifelong Yankees fan, Ripken brought him back to baseball, like he did so many other fans around the league. It was a once in a lifetime accomplishment that felt organic and uplifting.
Here was Ripken, a sure fire Hall of Famer, never missing a game, never giving an excuse and always producing incredible results on the field…even when surrounded by some lackluster Oriole teams.
20 years later he’s still serving as an ambassador to baseball, still captivating Orioles fans and still playing hurt.