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Cal Ripken and the Baltimore Orioles brought us quite a spectacle last week. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, the Iron Man and his team managed to surpass the all-time major-league record for commercial tie-ins. Lines to purchase Streak Week programs and specially stitched balls wound around at least a quarter of the ballpark’s perimeter, a queue worthy of a free beer stand. And because all of the hoopla was about showing up, you couldn’t miss the irony that you didn’t have to be there to get a piece of the action: Anyone could call a toll-free number to order the stuff, no ticket stub required. Being a part of history never demanded less.
Unlike attempting to bat .400 or win a pennant, Cal’s step into baseball divinity was a foolproof proposition for fans. Mighty Casey would not strike out. With no possibility for disappointment, there was no reason for restraint. Only Ripken was required to put anything on the line to achieve the milestone, and even for him the heavy lifting was over. He brought down the house with homers in each game of the record-setting series, then shook the place with his victory lap, but he fulfilled the requirements of history simply by driving to the ballpark.
Ripken’s consecutive-game streak is by definition an anti-event, with all the anticipatory crackle of watching grass mature. The predictable nature of the feat required Oriole marketeers to invent an instant for celebration (it also gave them months, even years, to shake and bake the hype). Placing numbers on the warehouse was brilliant, but the choice of music—John Tesh—was grim. By positioning the celebration to occur the moment the game became official, the club didn’t even demand fans to stay nine innings to honor the Iron Man. One Angels player observed that it wasn’t baseball, it was a “Kodak moment.”
The parade of gifts for Cal after games 2,130 and 2,131 wasn’t merely contrived, it was positively disturbing. His teammate’s gift of a 2,131-pound landscaping rock inscribed with that fateful number was inspired, but why should anyone give a multimillionaire a pool table or a new car?
Sitting in the ballpark, it was tough to resist the manufactured sentiment. Intellectually, it’s easy to say Ripken’s streak cannot compare to his other accomplishments, but you can’t ignore the palpable connection people felt with the games’ most storied Everyman. The hail of flashbulbs, like giant fireflies, offered winking tribute, more impressive than the sparklers spread along the top rim of the stadium and the howitzer blasting eight times beyond the center-field fence. The noise overwhelmed. Ripken said it well when asked about a fan who was holding fast to Tuesday night’s home run ball: “I don’t need it…I have the feeling of hitting the home run and running the bases. I wish everyone could have that feeling.” Everyone tried, tried awfully hard.
For Baltimore residents, it was a moment to celebrate a rare phenomena in modern professional sports: a hometown boy who hit the bigs in their midst and stayed there a long, long time. Ripken remains pure, a family man and a milk drinker, with blue eyes to die for.
But the geniuses who run the sport couldn’t leave well enough alone. Major League Baseball’s spinmasters were keen to wrap Ripken in the American flag. The sport—increasingly dependent on tapping international markets—may grow to regret the repeated references to baseball as a “great American game.” In Lou Gehrig’s moment at center-stage—on July 4, 1939, his body already suffering the ravages of the disease that would come to bear his name—he didn’t need a public-relations coach to know that he could call himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
The epic celebration had some lovely side effects. It took one of baseball’s milestones to drag Cal Ripken Sr. back to the park in Baltimore. He made his first visit to the Orioles’ home field since he was unceremoniously dismissed as third-base coach after being demoted as manager six games into the 1988 season. But tonight was Junior’s night. And since rat-faced brother Bill got a day off from the minor-league playoffs, the Ripken family-manager-and-two-sons act once again reunited in Baltimore. In his post-game speech, Ripken thanked Senior, Mother Vi, and especially his wife, Kelly, saying that she and their two children Rachel and Ryan “are my life.”
Ripken’s victory lap around the ballpark Wednesday night drew us into that life, at least for a moment. As he stopped to shake hands, throw back a lost cap, and soak in the deafening applause raining down from the tiers of Camden Yards, Ripken managed to re-weave the frayed bond between baseball and its fans.
Sport begs us to accept the myth of identification and we do it in spite of ourselves. We see in Ripken our greatest hopes. After being cold and withdrawn for so many of those 2,131 games, Ripken grew into his moment and his place in baseball history.