It’s a rare occasion in sports when the sight of a baseball player merely trotting to his position can evoke an outpouring of emotion normally reserved for the sweetest moments in life.
But it happened Wednesday night in a baseball shrine called Camden Yards. It happened when eight other members of the Baltimore Orioles stood aside at 7:36 p.m. and let the great Cal Ripken jog out to shortstop all alone - to play one more baseball game.
He has been jogging out to play those games for 14 seasons now, one after another after another until, finally, Wednesday night he had totaled 2,131 of them in a row. But that 2,131st will be one he will remember forever.
Because this was the night the Orioles’ unbreakable shortstop broke one of baseball’s unbreakable records.
When the fabled Lou Gehrig completed his streak of 2,130 straight games in the ‘30s, who thought anyone could possibly play that many in a row again? Over the last 50 years, no one had come even within 1,000 games of doing that.
Then Cal Ripken came along.
And the result Wednesday night was a sporting event for the ages.
And when he spoke afterward, it was a speech from a Norman Rockwell painting. He thanked his father first, then his mother. He thanked a former teammate, ex-Oriole Eddie Murray. And he thanked his wife.
“Tonight I stand here, overwhelmed, as my name is linked with the great and courageous Lou Gehrig,” Ripken said. “Some may think our strongest connection is because we both played many consecutive games. Yet I believe in my heart that our one true link is a common motivation - a love of the game of baseball, a passion for our team and a desire to compete on the very highest level.
“I know that if Lou Gehrig is looking down on tonight’s activities, he isn’t concerned about someone playing one more consecutive game than he did. He’s viewing tonight as just another example of what is good and right about the great American game.
“Whether your name is Gehrig or Ripken, DiMaggio or Robinson … you are challenged by the game of baseball to do your very best day in and day out.
“And that,” Ripken said, “is all that I have ever tried to do.”
There may be somebody somewhere who will remember that the Orioles beat the California Angels 4-1 in this game - and that nearly two dozen other people besides Ripken played in it.
But the enduring memory for most folks will be that this was a baseball game that froze in time for 22 minutes and 15 seconds.
One minute, it was just a game - Orioles 3, Angels 1 - halfway through the fifth inning. The next, Orioles second baseman Manny Alexander was gathering in the popup that made this an official game. And suddenly, it ceased to be a sporting event and turned into a transcendental Cal Ripken loveathon.
Orange and black balloons floated into the night. Lights illuminated the B&O; warehouse, erected on top of the house where Babe Ruth once lived, where hung the number that Ripken and Gehrig had shared for the last 24 hours: 2-1-3-0.
Then that zero turned to one, and baseball had a new king of the iron men: Calvin E. Ripken Jr.
For the next 22-plus minutes, Ripken took an amazing, exhausting “seven” curtain calls. He ripped off his jersey and cap and presented them to his wife and kids. He patted his heart. He mouthed the words, “Thank you,” over and over.
It still wasn’t enough. Ten minutes into it, he was pushed back out of the dugout by teammates Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmerio. And Ripken then did something you may not see again if you go to a million baseball games:
He circled the entire stadium, shaking hands. He greeted fans. He greeted the ball girls. He greeted the policemen lining the warning track. He leaped at the right-centerfield fence to high-five the fans out there.
He shook hands with every member of the Angels. He hugged veteran umpires Al Clark and Larry Barnett. He even tidied up by scooping up caps that had been thrown onto the field and giving them back to the fans who threw them.
This, said his teammate, Jeff Huson, was “overwhelming, in the truest sense.”
It was an event that will rank as one of baseball’s most historic happenings of the last quarter-century. Yet it was different from almost every other event like it - simply because the whole world knew it was coming.
“When Hank Aaron passed (the home-run record of) Babe Ruth, there was a question of when he was going to do it,” said the Orioles’ erudite broadcaster, Jon Miller, Wednesday night. “You didn’t know if it would be tonight in the first atbat, or in the fifth at-bat, or the next night, or a week from now.
“But with Cal, you knew going into the night it was going to happen, as long as he didn’t trip on the dugout steps or something. If he just made it out to shortstop and stayed healthy for the first half-inning, he’d done it.”
If the most historic moment of the ‘70s was Aaron passing Ruth, if the most historic moment of the ‘80s was Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb’s alltime hit record, then this was baseball’s most historic night of the ‘90s.
The record will show Ripken homered in this game in the fourth inning. The record also will show that the Angels’ Tim Salmon homered and that two other Orioles - Palmeiro and Bonilla - homered. The question most of these players had, though, even before they went out on the field was whether anyone would remember any of that.
“It doesn’t matter what anybody does tonight,” Huson said before the game. “You could make five errors in one inning, and they’re not going to notice. You could hit four home runs. You could hit two grand slams in one game. They’re not gonna notice.
“Whatever we do, that will just be a little blurb. But that’s the way it should be. This should be his night. He should be allowed to just go out there one inning all by himself. If anybody could do that for an inning and get by, he probably could.”
Well, if there is one thing Cal Ripken has been proving these last 14 years, it is that he knows the way out there like no one else who ever lived.