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Maker of magical moments leaves imprint for all time
Like everyone else, Mike Flanagan carries a moment, a flash that offers an indelible impression of Cal Ripken, his former teammate who grew to become, as Ripken's younger brother Bill liked to say, "the biggest man in the game."
The moment was Aug. 9, 51 days after Ripken had formally announced his intention on June 19 to retire and less than two months before the schedule said it was time to leave. Ripken had just suffered an 0-for-4 game against the Kansas City Royals, a faceless performance within another anonymous loss of a fourth-place season, except it had ended Ripken's hitting streak at 16 games, one shy of his career high.
Ripken's first at-bat had become a screaming out to left field. His next three went strikeout, pop fly, strikeout. Now, in the moments afterward, the third baseman sat at his locker replaying his night pitch by pitch.
"His hands were still trembling," says Flanagan, the left-hander who won a World Series with Ripken in 1983, then witnessed his final game as a broadcaster. "He was still wired. He went through each at-bat. He was still shaking, still in a heavy lather."
Still caring. Ripken left the game Saturday night as he wished - still a productive player at 41, universally applauded by his peers and embraced by fans in every city. Forever defined by his streak of 2,632 consecutive games, Ripken became a cultural symbol because of his ability to meet large moments as well as create smaller ones. He was, as 25-year-old teammate Jerry Hairston says, "the ultimate gamer."
Saturday's farewell followed 21 seasons that included 11 winning records but only three postseason appearances and one World Series title; yet no player of his generation better commanded the stage or left a more lasting imprint or a glossier image.
To a majority, Ripken is the Iron Man who captivated the nation in September 1995 when he tied, then broke, Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable consecutive-games record. Having lost about 10 pounds in the weeks before, he punctuated each night with a home run. His impromptu jog around Camden Yards on Sept. 6 elevated him from athlete to a transcendent figure.
"Whatever happened before or since, I think it all comes back to that night," says former Orioles announcer Jon Miller, who sat in the broadcast booth beside President Bill Clinton when Ripken cranked his home run in Game 2,131. "The Streak defined him, and, to many people, that night defined The Streak."
His departure follows a 12-city farewell tour and Saturday's powerful exit before a capacity crowd that gained the privilege only through a schedule modified after the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Ripken leaves behind a legacy of 3,001 games, 3,184 hits, 431 home runs, more All-Star starts than any other player, a redefinition of shortstop, an anachronistic association with only one team during his entire career and unchallenged status as the game's best-known player.
Ripken emerged as the industry's most respected, most idolized, most marketed player of his generation. He pitched hot dogs, soft drinks, milk, trucks and realty companies while refraining from offers to pitch beer and underwear, items he found not in keeping with an image polished throughout his career. His controversies almost seem quaint by today's standards. There was the disconcerting firing of Cal Ripken Sr. as manager in 1988, separate hotel arrangements originally suggested by Major League Baseball security in 1995, a position switch after the 1996 season, the herniated disc that threatened The Streak in 1997 and his missing a cross-country team charter in 1999 that came to light only as organizational pretense to fire general manager Frank Wren.
And, most scandalously, there was his desire to play every game.
"It's a remarkable thing to have witnessed - to see what he has become. You feel lucky. You feel proud," says Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, who has known Junior for 32 years. Commissioner Bud Selig called Ripken "a vital thread to the fabric of the game." Whether Ripken actually "saved" baseball after the 1994-1995 labor dispute is uncertain. But without a doubt, Sept. 6, 1995, transformed him from merely a near-certain Hall of Famer to the game's most exalted figure.
"He is The Streak," Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro once said while with the Orioles, "and The Streak is him."
Those who know him consider him a complicated, analytical man. Those who don't frequently questioned the sincerity of his careful answers. Ripken's consistent theme, however, has remained love of game.
"When things are written about modern players not caring as much ... I always think that's wrong," says Ripken. "There's a certain love you have to establish for the game to get where they've gotten. Money aside, once the game starts, you have a certain feeling and love for the game of baseball. Otherwise, you wouldn't keep doing it."
Ron Shapiro, his Baltimore-based agent, says: "Cal has been a protector, not a constructor, of his image. He is sensitive to protect that image. But he has not contrived or constructed that image."
Visibility invites a prism of perspective. There were those who adored a player who tried to abstain from controversy while playing every day, just as there were those skeptical of his motivation for playing without pause.
Ripken's explanation was a simple one: He played because his managers thought him productive enough to place in the lineup every day. Few questions irritated Ripken more than those seeking a subtext.
"That was what the record was always about. A lot of people from New York would hear that, wink and say, 'Well, that's a clever thing to say ... the right thing to say. But obviously not true.' But it was true," says Miller, who called Orioles games from 1983 to 1996.
Miller carries a photographic memory that can recite a Robert Lipsyte column published in The New York Times as Ripken closed in on Gehrig's record. The premise was Ripken should sit before breaking the record out of deference to Gehrig. Miller says: "Someone asked Cal about it. Cal said, 'If I did that, that would be saying the record was always what this was about. And it never was. I just want to be in the lineup every day to help the club.' "
Breaking Gehrig's most famous record gave Ripken a greater appreciation for the game's history. He studied the nuances of old ballparks while researching his Aberdeen Project stadium complex. Realizing his place in it all is most gratifying.
"When you see a 5-year-old with a sign that says 'Goodbye, Cal,' you know the 5-year-old doesn't know much about your career, but they learn through their parents or through the fun," he says. "I think that's pretty cool that baseball is passed down through generations. And to see a 5-year-old who isn't old enough to have formulated strong feelings or opinions having a sign, it means that baseball is in the fabric of the family. That's pretty special."
His 3 1/2 -month farewell tour through 12 cities only confirmed Ripken's place. Beginning with the afternoon Roland Hemond and Harold Baines presented him with a vial of infield dirt and a box seat from old Comiskey Park, to the July night he received dual curtain calls after hitting two home runs at Atlanta's Turner Field, to the September evening when he struggled to read his handwritten goodbye to Fenway Park, Ripken was struck by each moment.
"Each moment has its own meaning," he said during the tour. "Each one is special in its own way, so you want to make it last."
None may have been more special than Ripken's reception at July's All-Star Game in Seattle. Ripken reported to Safeco Field with the least impressive statistics of any player, but again crafted the game's most compelling memory by crushing a third-inning home run against Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park. Celebrated in midgame with San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn, Ripken became the oldest man to be named the game's Most Valuable Player.
"It's uncanny, Cal's sense of timing. Baseball is not played that way. But every time, he has been ready," Flanagan says.
Even when he rested, Ripken managed to do so with a simple dignity. When he ended his streak on Sept. 20, 1998, two snapshots exposed his true nature. He left the dugout to receive his home crowd's applause, then restarted the game by urging Doug Johns to resume. Several innings later, Ripken appeared peering over the bullpen wall beside reliever Alan Mills, a wry grin on his face reflecting the simple pleasure in a massive moment.
"My perception is that Cal is revered everywhere. People may be more analytical about him outside of Baltimore, though Cal's status has elevated both nationally and internationally," says Shapiro. "I think there may be a greater understanding of him in Baltimore. But I think as our cities have become more uniform, so have their perspectives. A generation ago, Baltimore was more uniquely Baltimore than today and Philadelphia was more uniquely Philadelphia."
How paradoxical that Ripken leaves a leader within the game but considered by many a reserved clubhouse presence.
Questions of leadership always burned him. Ripken grew up watching Brooks Robinson go about his job quietly, diligently and professionally, always preparing himself even in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. Brooks Robinson's Orioles enjoyed the vocal leadership of Frank Robinson, who, after seeing a teammate run half-speed on a routine ground ball, would interrogate the offender on the dugout steps. Because Ripken's Orioles often lacked such a vocal presence, there were those inside and outside the clubhouse who wondered about his reluctance to adopt the manner.
"I take very seriously your credibility. I have certain feelings about leadership, your credibility and your ability to help people," Ripken says. "By yelling and screaming or by waving a towel, to me that breaks down credibility. I'm not someone who's going to embarrass someone. I'm not someone who thinks they're better than someone and can preach to them in some capacity. There are many guys I've been able to offer assistance in a private fashion. That works. Probably the criticism stems from, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of what it is to play every day.
"Maybe in football, a person who can bring someone into an emotional frenzy is an asset. But in baseball, that's not necessarily the case. The manager is your focal guy. He directs the game. That's what my beliefs are."
Ripken's departure not only means the loss of a player and a marketing symbol, but also the subtraction of a resource.
"I've never come in contact with a player with such a thorough knowledge of the game ... never," says first baseman Jeff Conine, a former teammate of Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett. "He has a presence, but he is also approachable. You can learn by asking or simply by watching. If you did neither, whose fault is that?"
Ripken's creed now shifts to a youth baseball initiative, completion of his ambitious project and ultimately instilling his belief system within a major-league franchise. Ripken walked from the stage Saturday night, and, for the first time since 1956, the Orioles were devoid of the Ripken name. Ripken no longer talked about his next moment, his next game or his next season. He only moved away with a certain dignity.