If you, like most of us, find it hard to believe Oriole Park at Camden Yards is in its 24th season and the 10th oldest facility in Major League Baseball, you're probably stunned to learn of the impending 20th anniversary celebration of its signature event -- Sept. 6, 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.
The younger portion of the Orioles' fan base might opt for former Orioles outfielder Delmon Young's pinch-hit double during the second game of last year's American League Division Series, but it'll be another generation, or a World Series appearance, before anything surpasses "2,131" at Camden Yards. It's not often that a national television broadcast booth goes silent for 22 minutes, but it did that night, and few who either were there or watching will ever forget the scene.
Nobody really knew what to expect, because when the moment became official, nothing would be happening on the field except for players doing the same thing the spectators were doing -- watching the final number drop on the warehouse wall, leaving the indelible memory of "2,131" in everyone's mind.
It was a magical moment that seemed endless, and yet now is probably comparable to the blink of an eye for Ripken. He obviously wasn't sure how to act beyond acknowledging what surely was the longest standing ovation in history -- until teammates pushed him in the direction of the warning track for a long lap around the park.
The Orioles will be closing an important three-game series in Toronto on the actual 20th anniversary date, so they'll have their party Sept. 1 (it was a Wednesday when the record was broken), when they close a home stand against the Tampa Bay Rays. Ripken won't be taking a commemorative lap, but there's sure to be many flash-back scenes for those who want to re-live it or those who need an education about the experience.
Since the calendar relentlessly reminds us that it has been 20 years since that journey reached its climax -- though not the end, as the streak would grow to 2,632 straight games -- it seems like a good time to reflect on a record streak that seemed unbreakable at the time and all but off the charts now.
Just like Ripken's career (he made his debut as a pinch-runner for Ken Singleton Aug. 10, 1981 and hit only .128 in brief appearances during that strike-shortened year), the streak began inauspiciously. It was a 6-0 loss May 30, 1982 and, at the time, was significant to only two people -- Toronto right-hander Jim Gott, who pitched six innings and was credited with his first major league win during the Blue Jays' victory, and catcher Rick Dempsey, who got the Orioles' only hit. More than 13 years later, Gott, on the disabled list with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time, participated in the "2,131" ceremonies and presented Ripken with the ball from that game.
There is a touch of irony to that 1982 season for Ripken, who ended up being the Rookie of the Year but suffered through a couple of slow months with an average that lingered in the low .200s. Manager Earl Weaver was obviously trying to weave Ripken into the lineup (originally at third base) on a permanent basis, but it wasn't easy.
Ripken would actually have three consecutive game streaks that year. He played in the first 21 games before taking a fastball in the helmet from Mike Moore May 4, 1982 and sitting out the next game. It was deemed a precautionary measure, but Ripken's .138 average at the time was as much a concern as any lingering after-effects from the beaning.
But shortly after taking that 90-plus mph fastball on his left temple, Ripken began a steady climb, gradually moving up from the bottom of the lineup, where he hit eighth and ninth through much of the first half. He played in the next 20 games before missing the second game of a doubleheader May 29, 1982. When he was lifted for a pinch-hitter six days later, there was still little indication of an "Iron Man" streak, but it also marked the beginning of Ripken's "other streak," one that broke a record that lasted 39 years longer than the Gehrig record.
It would be another 5.5 years before Ripken came out of a game. Those who prefer to celebrate anniversaries on the exact date should mark the Aug. 31 game against Tampa Bay on the calendar. That will be the 30th anniversary of Ripken breaking George Pinkney's record of 5,152 consecutive innings, set during the 1885-1890 seasons -- a record that lasted 95 years. The "other" record would extend through 8,264 innings.
Once Ripken broke Pinkney's record, which had been largely ignored by connoisseurs of the record book, people started thinking about the one set by Gehrig, even though such a feat would require another 10 years. When his consecutive game streak was approaching 10 years, still more than three seasons away from the record, I talked with Ripken during a road trip off-day about the streak and its impact.
He was dealing with equal parts praise and criticism, or so it often seemed, and he obviously was feeling uneasy that he had to defend his desire to play every day, saying it was nothing more than doing what he had been taught.
"It was the way I was brought up (by his dad, Cal Ripken Sr.), to come to the park ready to play every day. To me, it's a combination of 162-game seasons that add up," Ripken said at the time, an explanation he would use throughout his eventual 2,632-game journey. "It's not like you played all those games without ever having any time off."
Eventually, Ripken's pursuit of Gehrig's record would become something of a savior for baseball. The prolonged labor dispute that brought about an incomplete 1994 season and a delayed start to 1995, not to mention the threat of games being played with replacement players, left bitterness that, to a degree, lingers to this day. There are those, not without good reason, who insist it eventually led to the loss of a franchise in Montreal (perhaps baseball's best team in 1994).
For the most part, all of that will be forgotten Sept. 1, when the Orioles celebrate the 20th anniversary of "The Streak," when those who remember will re-live the moment, and those who can't will relish a piece of the past and look forward to their own signature moment in time.
In the meantime, feel free to make a toast to George Pinkney and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the "other" record Aug. 31, the one that lasted almost a century, 39 years longer than the one everybody remembers.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.