- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Cal Ripken Jr. used to wrestle teammates in the clubhouse — much to their dismay, because they usually took a beating.

He used to race up these long stairs deep inside the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the kind of activity you might see today on one of those ultimate obstacle courses where maniacs test their mettle.

But that was when he was young. He’s 55 now, and limits himself to such benign activities as riding a bike.

So, it was a painfully amusing moment Tuesday when he told reporters that he had fell over the handlebars of his bike and hurt his shoulder a few hours before he was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Camden Yards. That would happen on a night dedicated to celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ripken playing in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking the great Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man record.



He showed up, though, and delivered the pitch, although it was halfway between the mound and home plate, to his close friend and former teammate Brady Anderson.

“In some ways it feels like only yesterday,” he told reporters before the ceremony, held on Sept. 1 because the team will be on the road on Sept. 6.
It was a day that nearly didn’t happen, and not because of anything that happened to Ripken, although he had some close calls with injuries over the years that nearly kept him out of the lineup.

No, it was the self destruction that the game of baseball was experiencing at the time that nearly robbed Ripken of his historic moment — identified with the lap that he took around the field pushed out of the dugout by teammates Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro after the game became official in the middle of the fifth inning.

The Ripken record was a gift from the baseball gods, because the game was at an all-time low, with fans leaving because of the bitter baseball strike of 1994 that led to commissioner Bud Selig cancelling the postseason.

Ripken’s record helped bring fans back and turned the focus back to the field, but the strike nearly robbed Ripken of this historic moment.

Ripken’s status had become an awkward side story to the baseball strike, for both sides. Baseball owners went into spring training in 1995 determined to use replacement players — and to start the season using them. Orioles owner Peter Angelos refused to field a replacement team, though, in part because he was an active supporter of unions in Baltimore, but also because it risked the status of Ripken’s march on Gehrig’s record.

The players union even considered the possibility of giving Ripken permission to cross the picket line to preserve “The Streak.” Reliever Todd Jones said publicly that some members of the union agreed it would be all right for Ripken to cross the picket line — something that Ripken didn’t want any part of.

The whole state of Maryland mobilized behind Ripken. City and state legislators passed resolutions barring the use of replacement players at Camden Yards, though it wasn’t clear such a resolution could be enforced.

American League president Gene Budig was under the gun. If the season went on with replacement players without Ripken on the field, would that end his streak?

Budig never definitively said what he would have done, but did say that “on numerous occasions I assured everyone that the league would make every effort to protect The Streak. It was important that Cal Ripken be given the opportunity to keep the record going. I always thought it was in the best interest of Major League Baseball. He clearly deserved the right to challenge the record.”

Then there was the schedule. As originally written, the full 162-game schedule put the record-breaking game on Aug. 18 in Oakland. Everyone agreed that the game should take place at Camden Yards — everyone, that is, except Oakland Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson.

During the winter, Alderson said there was no way the A’s would trade the home date with the Orioles. “I’m going to watch that game from our box in Oakland,” Alderson said. “We may have a seat for Angelos somewhere in the ballpark.”

It all turned out to be a moot point when a federal judge ruled in favor of the players in an unfair labor practice injunction, forcing an end to the strike, with the 1995 season reduced to 144 games — setting up the Sept. 6 date at Camden Yards.

Still, there wasn’t much room for acts of God that would play havoc with the schedule. The next day, Sept. 7, was an off day, but then the Orioles were scheduled to go on the road to Cleveland, and Indians general manager John Hart — who used to work for the Orioles — indicated they were not able to trade the three-game series against Baltimore at Jacobs Field in September while the Indians were marching towards their first postseason appearance since the 1954 World Series.

It all came together though, for that historic moment — a moment we still embrace 20 years later, a moment that will stand the test of time.

“I don’t look at it as that unbreakable record everyone else does,” Ripken said. “Someone told me it was 56 years that Lou Gehrig had the record, and that kind of blew me away. I don’t know if it makes it more special or not. The streak happened because it was a byproduct of wanting to play and loving to play and being taught that your job was to come to the ballpark ready to play.”

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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