Making of a legend
Rupert Cornwell reports on a perfect night in the troubled game of baseball
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Friday 08 September 1995
But this was no fantasy. Finally, after 13 years, three months and eight days, Cal Ripken had done it. When the visiting California Angels completed their fifth innings, the feat became official. The local boy, born and raised a 40- minute drive from the stadium, on Wednesday night surpassed Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games.
For more than 20 minutes they were on their feet applauding (22 minutes and 15 seconds to be exact; baseball insists on exact statistics). Half a dozen times Ripken appeared from the Orioles dugout, but still they would not sit down. Finally, propelled on to the field by two of his colleagues, the man of the decade performed a slow-motion lap of honour. God was in his heaven and, for an instant, Cal Ripken was his son, sent to earth to save America's beleaguered national pastime from itself.
But more even than statistics, baseball treasures history, sentiment and continuity. Which is why the best moment came afterwards, long after midnight, as the post-game celebrations reached their climax. First they introduced Ripken's team-mates from 30 May, 1982, the day the streak began. Then his family, then sundry dignitaries. But impatience was creeping into the air, "We want Cal, We want Cal," they chanted, demanding the promised speech.
And then, suddenly there was silence. An old man, almost 81 now, was walking out to the centre of the field. His back was stooped, his step slow, and the wavy swept back hair had turned almost white. But here, instantly recognisable, was the human link this evening of baseball pageantry and history had lacked: Joe DiMaggio, Jolting Joe, the legendary "Yankee Clipper" who was Gehrig's team-mate for the last three years, between 1936 and 1939.
"Cal Ripken is a one in a million ball player," DiMaggio said as he took the microphone by second base. "Wherever Lou is today, I'm sure he is tipping his cap to you, Cal." Thus a generational baton passed. Gehrig's record had been considered unbreakable; now another baseball immortal, who had watched as it was established 56 years ago, was on hand to sanctify the man who surpassed it. And, for the umpteenth time on Wednesday night, the cheers resumed.
Finally it was Ripken's turn, "overwhelmed as I stand here, as my name is linked with the great and courageous Lou Gehrig". And if the great man were looking down on the frenzy in Baltimore: "I know he isn't concerned about someone playing one more consecutive game than he did. Instead he's viewing tonight as just another example of what's good and right about the great American game".
For Ripken it was simply another day at the office, but, as the home run proved, where the job came first. "Even God took a day off," proclaimed a poster. But not Cal Ripken. After all, that was only the Creation. This is baseball.
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