Making of a legend

Rupert Cornwell reports on a perfect night in the troubled game of baseball

So perfectly scripted was the night, the Baltimore Orioles might just have been taken over by Walt Disney. President Clinton no less was in the radio play-by-play booth, baseball's newest immortal actually hit a home run - and then, as the giant number on the warehouse wall moved from 2,130 to 2,131, a cheer soared to the heavens, and the flashes of a myriad spectators' camera bulbs turned Campden Yards into a stage set from Fantasia.

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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