Viewers guide: The night Cal Ripken Jr. became baseball’s Iron Man

ESPN continues MLB Encore Tuesdays, a series of classic game broadcasts, at 7 p.m. ET with the Sept. 6, 1995, contest between the California Angels and Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. It was Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,131st consecutive game, which broke the record of New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig.

What you need to know while you watch: Fans were angry at baseball in 1995. The World Series had been canceled in 1994, and the owners even threatened to start the 1995 season with replacement players — much to the consternation of the Orioles organization. Team owner Peter Angelos said his team would forfeit every game rather than use replacement players. The union gave Ripken its blessing to cross the picket line in order to keep his streak alive if it came to that. Luckily, Ripken didn’t have to make that choice. The season finally started in late April, and by early September, Ripken’s chase of Gehrig finally gave everyone a reason to love baseball again.

Did you know? Ripken’s streak began on May 30, 1982, and would extend through Sept. 19, 1998 — a total of 2,632 consecutive games. That encompassed the majority of the final seven years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the entirety of George H.W. Bush’s four-year presidency and the first 5½ years of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The view from the press box: The 2,131st game was an unbelievably powerful night at Oriole Park — especially for anyone who grew up in Maryland, knew Cal Ripken Jr. well and had been part of the incredible buildup. This was about more than baseball; this was about family, commitment, loyalty, discipline, neighborhood. Dear friend Bob Elliott, a Hall of Fame baseball writer from Canada, wasn’t a big part of the lead-up or the story. He arrived in Baltimore two days before 2,131.

Minutes before the game started, he said, with regret, “I don’t see it. I don’t feel it. I don’t get it.”

We agreed to wait to see what happened. When the game became official after 4½ innings, the 2,131 banner was unfurled from the famed warehouse in right field. It was so cool. It was the best part of the nightly buildup. The Orioles presented the banner ceremony every game, starting with 2,108 and finishing with the record-breaker. All the Orioles relievers sprinted in from the bullpen to congratulate him. Ripken emerged from the dugout, patted his heart, hugged his wife and children and, in the most touching moment of all, waved to his beloved father in one of the suites.

Then there was the ovation. It was so spontaneous — 22 minutes of the most genuine outpouring of emotion you will ever see at a baseball game. Ripken tried to make the cheering stop; he wanted to restart the game. But teammates Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla shoved Ripken back onto the field at 9:31 p.m., which in military time, is 21:31. Ripken joyously circled the ballpark, pointing to fans, slapping hands with some, hugging others. The musical selection was perfect: Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.” People all across Oriole Park were weeping. It was a remarkable 22 minutes.

When the unforgettable ceremony ended, Elliott had tears in his eyes. “Now,” he said, “I get it.” — Tim Kurkjian

On the night Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man record, he also broke the dam that had separated baseball fans from their unadulterated love for the game.

So many hearts had hardened because of the vitriolic labor war that gobbled up the end of the 1994 season and its World Series. The warring players and owners also chewed raw what was left of many fans’ loyalty and trust.

Yet as Ripken approached what many long considered an unbreakable record, acceptance, appreciation, admiration and finally awe seeped back into every ballpark he graced.

By the time the final scene was unfolding in a sold-out Camden Yards, gone for at least a night was the crushing cynicism and anger that had gripped the ’95 season.

Ripken did that just by, as he said, showing up for work. As the banner on the B&O Warehouse flipped to show that Ripken’s consecutive game No. 2,131 was officially in the books, the party was full-on not only in the Orioles dugout but also in the stands as Ripken did a victory lap around the entire field. A Herculean record. Countless human touches by a humble player. Baseball could not have wished for more. — Claire Smith

One thing you might miss: The Angels were in the midst of a historic collapse. They had led the American League West by 10½ games on Aug. 16 (and by 11½ over the Seattle Mariners). This loss would be the Angels’ 14th in 16 games, however, dropping their lead to 5½ games. They would soon add a nine-game losing streak, and the Mariners would beat them in a tiebreaker game for the division title.

You probably forgot he was in this game: Jesse Orosco picked up the save for the Orioles in their 4-2 victory — not that anyone remembers who won the game. In a sense, Orosco is the Cal Ripken Jr. of pitchers or at least the Ripken of relief pitchers. He was then 38 years old and led the AL in appearances that season, but he was far from done. He would pitch until he was 46, lasting 24 seasons, and make 1,252 appearances — the most all time for a pitcher.

Quote of note: “Wherever my old teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.” — Joe DiMaggio at the postgame ceremony honoring Ripken

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