Twenty Years Later

Posted by Kurt Smith on Sunday, September 6, 2015

On Lou Gehrig’s bust in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium, there is no mention of his .340 lifetime average, 493 home runs, two MVP awards or his 1934 Triple Crown...Hall of Fame statistics all.

But it does point out that Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games, and that the record “should stand for all time.”

It also reads that Gehrig was a gentleman, something that has never been disputed.

Often one of the reasons we elevate the status of an athlete or musician from “talented performer” to “hero” is something that happens off of the big stage. Maybe they’re friendlier than necessary to people who ask for their autograph. Maybe they show real appreciation for the fans that place them on such pedestals. Sometimes they are cut down in the prime of their life, as Gehrig was, and yet still show gratitude for their fortunes, as Gehrig did.

Cal Ripken Jr. had already achieved hero status in Baltimore long before September 6, 1995, and he was so for reasons only longtime Orioles fans understood. He was the last link to the Oriole Way. Fundamentals. Defense. Anticipation. On any given play, you knew Ripken would be exactly where he was supposed to be.

It’s cliché to say he respected the game. Of course he did. It’s more accurate to say he respected how difficult his chosen profession really is.

But in 1995 fans didn’t have any sympathy for the challenges of playing major league baseball. And maybe rightly so. They had seen a great season end prematurely, without a World Series, without seeing Tony Gwynn possibly become the first .400 hitter in 53 years, without seeing a possible Expos championship.

And absolutely no one on either side of the negotiating table could give an acceptable reason why.

After several work stoppages over the previous couple of decades, the battle had grown to the level of absurd. By the end of 1994, fans struggling to pay their mortgages had finally had enough of watching millionaires who play a game and owners who rake in billions from it take their ball and go home.

Baseball returned in 1995, with a big attendance and ratings drop. America told baseball something that in its arrogance it didn’t believe it would ever hear: we can, and will, get along without you.

That season, one player singlehandedly healed the relationship between baseball and its disillusioned fans.

He didn’t just continue to play every game as he had for 13 years. He made himself available for interviews in every city, answering the same questions hundreds of times. He spent hours before and after games signing autographs. And on the night that his consecutive games streak reached 2,131, the moment he cemented his name in baseball history, he hugged his kids and ran a lap around the ballpark shaking hands with fans.

The 22-minute thunderous ovation that accompanied that lap was a thank you to Cal Ripken Jr., for letting us all be fans again without feeling like fools for it. That night, America realized that this game we love is played by flawed humans. When one of them understood the fans’ anger and took it upon his shoulders to make it up to them, it made for one of the most touching moments in baseball history.

Those of us who remember that night have had twenty more years of life experience since. Experience that teaches us that we all lose sight of what matters most to us. That we are all susceptible to lack of appreciation for our blessings…or contempt for others who show a similar character flaw.

Ripken is a flawed human, like Gehrig was, like all of us are. But that night he was a hero, not because he played a game well and did it every day, but because he spent a season sending a message to millions of baseball fans: yes, we understand, yes, we screwed up, and yes, we hope you can forgive us.

Twenty years later, the legacy of that night isn’t the updating of a record book. It is a story of forgiveness, gratitude and redemption…a place in time that reminded us all what mattered.

Tags: orioles  camden yards 
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