I used to love baseball.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it again now, but there was a time where I wanted nothing to do with it. When the owners decided that they were bigger than the game and actually cancelled the World Series in 1994 because of a collective bargaining dispute, I was done with it.
“I’m done with you baseball,” I said. “Never again. I’m done going to games, I’m done playing fantasy baseball, I’m done with it all.”
“Done,” I added.
And I was. Baseball was my favorite sport as a child. I watched games every chance I could. I played baseball in the street. (Kids used to actually do that.) It was my first love. Then, greedy owners took away the World Series. They cancelled the World Series!
Think about that for a second. Can you imagine the NFL being stupid enough to cancel the Super Bowl? Or the NBA being dumb enough to cancel the NBA Finals? Or the NHL…oh, wait, they did it too, but nobody noticed.
So in 1995, I decided that I was never watching another Major League Baseball game again. In fact, I would still be boycotting today if not for one man, on one fateful night.
That man is Cal Ripken, Jr.
The night was September 6, 1995. The night Cal Ripken, Jr. saved baseball.
It was on that night that the Orioles’ Hall of Fame shortstop broke the record that people said would never be broken: Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2130 consecutive games played. To put that in perspective, that is over THIRTEEN SEASONS of 162 games, spread out over six months per season, without missing a single one. That means, that for THIRTEEN SEASONS, Ripken never, not one time, got suspended for doing something stupid, never stayed out all night drinking and got scratched for “flu-like symptoms,” never even stubbed his toe and had to sit for a couple days.
He also, over the course of that streak, played so well that he needed to be in the lineup anyway. He was rookie of the year, two time American League MVP, and a two time Gold Glove award winner. The NINETEEN time All-Star won the All-Star game MVP twice as well, and won the Silver Slugger eight times during the streak.
Why would you ever take that kind of production out of the lineup anyway? You wouldn’t, that’s why he broke the record.
But this is not about Cal’s greatness, it’s about how he saved baseball for me. I hadn’t watched a game all year, but of course I was paying attention to this streak. It was historic. And so, on that September evening, I sat down to watch history, not baseball. My intent was to watch the game until it became official and then change the channel.
So I’m watching when Cal comes up to bat in the fourth inning and hits a home run. I had goose bumps. Then, when the game became official in the bottom of the fifth, the 2131 banner was unfurled in the outfield and the crowd erupted. The opposing team (the Angels), all of the umpires and the entire crowd stood, cheered and applauded for 22 minutes straight. It was during this ovation that it happened.
Cal Ripken, the ultimate team player, a guy who was never about himself, was practically pushed out of the dugout and told to do a lap around the field by his teammates. The crowd, somehow, got louder. As he circled the field, shaking hands with and high fiving fans, I noticed that I was crying.
This man, this incredible man, by simply acknowledging that we, the fans, are important, saved baseball for me. His going out there was totally against his character, because the last thing he ever wanted to do was to bring more attention to himself. He was all about the game. He remembered what the owners forgot the previous year, that this game, this wonderful game, is not about the money. It’s about going out there every day and trying your best for the fans that pay your salary. Cal Ripken was bigger than the game that night even if he didn’t want to acknowledge it. And he saved baseball.
It’s not the same for me, of course. It never will be. Baseball broke my heart in 1994, and it will never fully get it back. But I do love baseball again, and it started that night, as I watched Cal Ripken, Jr. remind us all what it means to love baseball. That game, that crowd, that run around the field – history itself – that is what baseball is all about.
Thanks for saving baseball, Cal.