Today is a milestone day for this blog - my 100th entry - and it gets a milestone card. As you might have surmised, the above card shows Cal Junior acknowledging the fans on September 6, 1995, the night that he broke Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old record by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game. I have to sheepishly admit that I don't recognize all of the players behind him, but I can tab a few of them. Third from the left is Arthur Rhodes. Next to him, Doug Jones is holding the camcorder. Standing in the back, over Cal's left shoulder, is Jeffrey Hammonds. Next to him is Jesse Orosco, and on the end is...a batboy. I hope that kid was thrilled to make it onto a baseball card, the lucky stiff.
I remember a lot about that night. I remember my near-miss with history; two days earlier I had been at Oriole Park with my father, my Uncle Ken, and Bill, a middle school acquaintance of mine and a fellow sports nut. My Dad had gotten free tickets on a beautiful Labor Day afternoon, tickets that put us right next to the O's bullpen. So I was there for game 2,129. So close, and yet so far. To rub a little salt in the wound, the Birds lost 5-3, being undone by the Angels' four-run fifth inning against starter Jamie Moyer. I have two distinct memories from that game. One involves Doug Jones warming up in the bullpen and losing control of a pitch that sailed over the catcher's head and clattered off of the protective screen to our left. For all that I know, he was probably trying to silence a heckler. It's not often that a pitcher lets loose with a purpose pitch before he even gets into the game. The other thing I remember about that game is me asking Bill if he was having a good time. He replied in the affirmative, "except for this woman that keeps dropping peanut shells on my head!". Indeed, there was a heavyset man sitting a row up from us, and he was a bit careless with his leavings. If the slovenly guy heard Bill's complaint/insult, he didn't acknowledge it.
On the night of the actual record-breaker, my dad and I watched the game on television with my Uncle Jerry. He was my mom's oldest brother, a short-tempered and impish cab driver. I still remember laughing with disbelief when I learned that he had set my mother's hair on fire as a child and then had tried somewhat ineffectually to blow it out. He was the only one of my uncles that ever really intimidated me; on the rare occasions when he rebuked me for acting out there was something about his stern face and tone of voice that just cut through me. When my little sister and I were fighting about something, she'd pull out her trump card: "I'll tell Uncle Jerry!" It was an empty threat - he usually wasn't visiting with us when she said it, but the very idea of him just freaked me out. What can I say; I was a nervous kid.
Anyway, as I got a bit older, I stopped thinking of him as a boogeyman. We even started bonding a bit over the Orioles, in the way that all awkward young men bond with older male figures, relieved to find some sort of common ground. Back then, most O's games were on Home Team Sports, which was a premium cable channel at the time. My family had only basic cable, so Uncle Jerry had generously invited my dad and myself over to his apartment to watch the 2,131 festivities. By the time the big day rolled around, we learned that WJZ-13, a local channel, would be sharing the broadcast, as would ESPN. But we didn't want to offend my uncle, and we probably didn't want him to watch it alone in his modest bachelor pad, so we kept our word and joined him.
That game was straight out of Hollywood, and yet so much about it seemed genuine. The stadium - and the room - came unglued as Bobby Bonilla led off the fourth inning with a home run to put the O's ahead 2-1. It was pure bedlam as Cal stepped to the plate next and hit his own home run - the third straight game he'd gone deep! A half-inning later Damion Easley hit a lazy pop-up to second baseman Manny Alexander, making the game official. 46,272 spectators rose to their feet as one, cheering wildly. The number banners that had been hanging from the warehouse for the previous few months were changed one more time, 2,130 flipping over to 2,131.
The man of the hour sheepishly stepped out of the home dugout, acknowledging the fans with a few cursory waves and some mouthed "thank you"s. He tried to retreat to the dugout, intent on not bringing the game to a grinding halt. But the Camden Yards faithful wouldn't let up, coaxing the new Iron Man out of the dugout a few more times. Cal's teammates sensed that it would take a grand gesture to satisfy the throng, and finally Rafael Palmeiro and Bonilla physically pushed the shortstop out onto the field once more and urged him to take a stroll. Displaying a flair for the dramatic, #8 began jogging slowly down the right field line, taking the time to reach out and slap the hands of as many people as he could. He continued across the warning track, jumping up here and there to reach up the outfield fence and meet the fans who were hanging out of their seats to try to get to him. He eventually concluded his victory lap and the game resumed some 22 minutes after it had been stopped. Looking back on the emotionally overpowering scene, I think the most remarkable aspect may have been ESPN's coverage. Not only did they let it all unfold without a commercial break, but loudmouth broadcaster Chris Berman kept his trap shut the whole time. It would have been so easy for him to ruin the moment by spouting hackneyed catchphrases and waxing faux-poetic, but for possibly the only time in his career, he let the pictures do the talking.
So we know what the future held for Cal Ripken, Jr. after the defining moment of his playing career, but what does the future hold for this blog? Let's just say that I've got plenty of stories to tell, and I've barely skimmed the surface of my Orioles card collection. Unbelievably, I have yet to post a single Eddie Murray card. I also haven't gotten around to luminaries like Paul Richards, Hoyt Wilhelm, Gus Triandos, Mike Cuellar, John Lowenstein, Tippy Martinez, Ken Singleton...the list goes on and on. Then there are the oddballs, the Floyd Rayfords and Todd Frohwirths of the world. If you keep reading, I'll keep writing.