Twenty-six years ago today, Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig, snapping what many baseball people had considered an unbreakable record. And I was in Camden Yards that night, and what a lovefest it was.
I was there the night before as well when Ripken caught Gehrig at 2,130 consecutive games. It was without a doubt the highlight of my sports-filled life. My thinking being: everyone wants to be there the night Ripken breaks the streak, me, being me wants to be there the night he ties the record.
The sellout crowd gathered early the night the record was broken. The stadium was full when batting practice began for the visiting California at the time Angels – two and a half hours before the scheduled first pitch.
When the contest became official in the middle of the fifth inning, and the raucous crowd stood and gave the hometown hero a 22-minute standing ovation, I cried, I really did.
It was a Baltimore moment. I’m not from Baltimore, but I consider the city my second home, having spent an enormous amount of my life visiting family and friends and watching hundreds of Oriole games in both Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards.
Baltimore is a blue-collar town, a union town, and Ripken represented the city perfectly. Rip came to work every day, did his job to the best of his abilities, and did it with pride. Take a day off – never.
Although I had covered the Orioles for the News-Virginian in the past, I wanted no part of a media credential for those two nights. (Like I had a chance of being issued one.) I wanted to experience every wonderful moment in the stands with 50,000 of my closest friends, and did I ever!
On the day of Ripken breaking the streak, the area around the stadium was elbow-to-elbow at noon. Camden Yards is tucked away in the heart of Baltimore. Surrounded by hotels, industry, bars and the famous B&O Warehouse adjacent to the stadium, it is the epicenter of the Baltimore sports scene.
The city closed streets in many directions in the afternoon, many office buildings closed early as well. All in anticipation of the moment.
For the Orioles, the game in the overall context of the season was an afterthought as the team struggled during the season.
Baltimore came into the contest in third place in the American League East, almost 20 games behind division-leading New York. In any other season, the Orioles would be simply playing out the string.
But this was not just any other season, this was the season – 17 years in the making.
The game finally began with the first pitch just around 7:35 p.m. The first few innings of the contest were for the most part anti-climactic. The atmosphere in Oriole Park was beyond electric.
Not only was President Bill Clinton in attendance, but Vice President Al Gore as well. A rarity that the two top elected officials in the country were together away from the White House. President Clinton stated it was the “highlight of my sports life.”
By the top of the fifth inning, the seating area in Camden Yards was beyond filled. My seat was in lower left field, and as I gazed around the stadium, not only was there not one empty seat, but I was also unable to even find aisles that were not completely full. Wonder where the Baltimore fire marshal was?
The glare of camera flash was unavoidable; remember phone cameras were not a thing in 1995.
A major league game, to be “official,” must have the visiting team batting through the fifth inning. The Angels cooperated nicely in the fifth with the first two hitters efficiently dispatched.
Two outs, one out remained. When Manny Alexander caught Damion Easley’s pop-fly to make the game official, Camden Yards just flat out busted. The “0” in “2130” hanging on the B&O Warehouse aptly dropped to display “2131” as the cool night air became a sea of black and orange balloons.
I cried, again.
People sitting around me began hugging one another, tears in their eyes, pumping their fist into the night air. It was as though they had broken the record. And you know what, with the hometown kid doing it, they deserved that feeling, I know I did.
Ripken, being Ripken, continued to play until Sept. 20, 1998, when he removed himself from the lineup at 2,632 games.
But that night 26 years ago will live forever in my mind. Fifty thousand were there, 5 million will say they were there, and that’s ok. That’s a Baltimore thing.