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The Iron Man ovation: Baltimore's 22-minute appreciation of Cal Ripken Jr., 25 years later

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On Sept. 6, 1995, Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive major league game, surpassing Lou Gehrig’s record, which had stood for 56 years. I was five and don’t remember it happening and even if I had, I probably wouldn’t remember what is, in retrospect, the most remarkable part of that feat: The good people of Baltimore reacted with a 22-minute standing ovation. That’s … so long? That’s SO LONG.

Did you know that? I did not know that. Even if you did know that, have you considered lately how remarkable it is. This was in the middle of the game, mind you.

This piece might be embarrassing or even disqualifying for me. You’re about to find out that I’m not especially well-versed in the specifics of baseball history. If it happened when I was too young to have my own takes, I know only the broadest strokes. This is by no means a point of pride — I’m well aware that books are a thing and baseball history is plenty accessible — but it is important backstory.

When my editor alerted me that the 25th anniversary of the Iron Man achievement was approaching, he sent a blurb that made note of the ovation. And, with all due respect to Ripken’s run, it is the single greatest feat of stamina I’ve ever heard of.

In an effort to parlay this reaction into content, my editor asked if I would like to write about the 22-minute standing ovation, to which my response was (and I quote): “No! That’s too long! Who wants to watch a video that long!”

Presumably, no modern fan. We have the attention span of a single TikTok.

But maybe that’s precisely the value in slogging through it — to marvel at the remarkably unfamiliar context as a way of better internalizing the scale of the accomplishment in the only way I could have at the time — namely, as a spectator.

In retrospect all records look a little flat and inevitable. All 2,131 games that comprised the record exist as a monolith in my understanding of the feat, it’s impossible to fully experience the mindset of suspense that must have dominated the final weeks and days of the streak from a vantage of knowing it happened. Maybe the closest I can get is to revel in the relief and elation that immediately followed.

All that, plus ’90s fashion.

Some logistics: MLB Vault has the entire game. Feel free to skip around and catch Ripken’s fourth-inning home run. The ovation starts at 1:45:46.

Before the ovation: It is so interesting to me that the lengthy celebration was conducted on the occasion of the game becoming official following the top half of the fifth inning. If the California Angels (took me a minute to figure out what those proto-Rockies-looking logos were) had tied it up, as the broadcasters reminded us, they would have to wait until after the bottom of the fifth. This is the most accurate way to mark game streaks, certainly! It’s also sort of esoteric for such a blunt stat.

Beginning of ovation: “And now it’s time for the moment you’ve been waiting for,” the voice of play-by-play announcer Mel Proctor said as soon as the final out in the inning was made. He was about 21 minutes shy, I’m led to believe, and I wonder if they knew what was in store.

40 seconds into ovation: Is this the only positive thing (non-brawl edition) in baseball history that has inspired bullpen pitchers to run across the field? I would like a complete list of anything else that has inspired this sort of chaos.

(Via MLB Vault)
(Via MLB Vault)

49 seconds into ovation: JumboTrons should explain relevant rules more often.

1:02 into ovation: If you squint you can almost see a time when the commander in chief cared to commemorate moments of cultural significance outside of himself, and it was considered an actual honor.

(Via MLB Vault)
(Via MLB Vault)

1:20 into ovation: I sort of miss the era of iconic moments highlighted by camera flashes. The aesthetic of literal sparkle that directly reflects a contemporaneous understanding of how historic whatever is happening in front of you — it feels innate but maybe it’s collectively learned from having lived through pre-cellphone camera times.

2:17 into ovation: It really feels like this is about to die down. How is there still 20 minutes left? Did the broadcasting world just learn how to do the fade-in-and-out-of-a-shot-with-slight-overlap thing?

3:34 into ovation: Ripken removes his jersey and hands it to his wife and kids: Very cute. Revealing a shirt that reads, “2,130+ HUGS AND KISSES FOR DADDY”. Very confusing. The general sentiment of centering his role as a father in this moment is really sweet and shows healthy priorities, but this shirt makes no sense!

First of all, if you’re going to get a custom shirt for the occasion, get one with the actual record-setting number. Is the implication that his children gifted him with this following the completion of the previous game? The under-jersey reveal of his family-first mentality could have landed better if it was a shirt he had custom designed to call out Ryan and Rachel and how this was all for them … or something? Or else they could have handed him back a shirt that said congratulations? They had a long time to see this coming, I just think it could have benefited from a bit more workshopping.

(Via MLB Vault0
(Via MLB Vault0

6:15 into ovation: Good sign honoring Gehrig.

(Via MLB Vault)
(Via MLB Vault)

6:30 into ovation: Less good sign congratulating Ripken’s parents on … procreating?

7:10 into ovation: The broadcast notes that the ovation has lasted for seven minutes and the Orioles, including Ripken, are sitting down in the dugout, ready for the home half of the fifth. Buckle up, boys, we’re not even halfway through.

Rafael Palmeiro, sitting to Ripken’s left, hit .301 in 31 games in the American Association as a 53-year-old (!!!) in 2018. Where’s his 22-minute ovation?

7:29 into ovation: I don’t know how many curtain calls we’re up to, but Cal looks like he’s about ready to wrap this all up. Based on a Baltimore Sun story from the time, this appears to be when Ripken says, "I can't take much more of this." There’s about 15 minutes left.

8:39 into ovation: The crowd starts cheering, “We want Cal!” It’s been about a minute since his last curtain call.

(Via MLB Vault)
(Via MLB Vault)

10:03 into ovation: Palmeiro (and Bobby Bonilla?) pushing Ripken out onto the field to force a victory lap is, to this point, my favorite, most indelible, evocative moment. The answer, in part, to how this could go on for so long is: against the half-hearted wishes of the man himself. But that makes it seem all the more genuine. It wasn’t grandstanding, or even all that much pomp and circumstance after the first few minutes, it was merely a fanbase and an extended family unwilling to stop reveling in what they had just witnessed.

10:35 into ovation: What better way to celebrate never getting to rest your body than by running laps?

(Via MLB Vault)
(Via MLB Vault)

11:11 into ovation: Cal Ripken Sr. surely must’ve been thrilled. Surely. Thrilled. Right?

17:47 into ovation: “Remember the game is not over,” the broadcast says and I wonder if the Angels players are doing jumping jacks to stay warm.

Then there’s Bonilla with the camcorder in the dugout. Was the video camera in the dugout already an exception or did they not have quite the same security concerns in 1995?

(Via MLB Vault)
(Via MLB Vault)

18:14 into ovation: “No more,” Ripken says.

18:19 into ovation: There is nothing more incongruous and enthusiastic than Ripken’s teammates holding a camcorder up to his face in the dugout. The elation of other players — even on the Angels — throughout all of this serves to underscore how Herculean the physical achievement seemed even to people who can hit a home run or throw 95 mph.

That they thought to document their proximity to something literally being broadcasted by a professional television crew, and that it was allowed, makes it feel far away from anything I remember witnessing in my baseball life — bigger, really.

21:39 into ovation: The sequence ends with a shot of the banners on the warehouse across the street, a brilliant bit of promotion that deserves the attention it’s getting in retrospectives. They had time to plan this thing cause it was literally years in the making (13 years sounds even more impressive, frankly, than 2,131 games.)

The stories about Ripken make it seem less precarious, less fate-tempting to have a banner made up at all, than I might have originally thought: The streak was no accident, Ripken played through slumps and small injuries en route to making history, providing ample opportunity for dissenters to call the streak selfish.

Of course, I don’t think they did, but the Orioles could have kept the count going for the next 502 games.

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