Flashback: How “The Streak” almost ended

It’s hard to fathom that it’s been 17 years since Sept. 6, 1995, when Camden Yards was at the center of the baseball universe on the night that Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game. That night, Cal broke a record set by the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig that was once believed unreachable.

Seeing The Iron Man one-up The Iron Horse was nothing short of magical, and there may have been more electricity buzzing through the ballpark for that game than on any other in Baltimore baseball history - and, yes, I’m including such memorable feats as the O’s beating the Dodgers in four straight in the 1966 World Series, the 1993 All-Star game and Ripken’s grab that ended the 1983 Fall Classic in Philadelphia.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Worse yet, it would have been my fault.

Imagine, for a second, if Ripken hadn’t played in 2,130 games in a row, much less 2,131 (or the 2,632 the streak eventually became). But for a near collision in the hallway next to the home clubhouse, it could have happened.

Here’s the story about how I almost ended Ripken’s consecutive games streak at 2,129 games:

Cal Wave 2131 wide.jpgOn the afternoon of 2,130, a rumor started swirling that Ripken would tie Gehrig’s hallowed mark, then take a seat the next night, meaning the two greats would share the consecutive games record for all eternity. The Orioles were already on the field for batting practice when whispers of this supposed arrangement crept through the press box. I was on assignment that night for The Associated Press, and I was dispatched to the home clubhouse to poll the Iron Man’s teammates, asking whether they’d be in favor of such a selfless act.

I hopped up the steps from the O’s dugout and bounded into the tunnel that leads to the clubhouse. That entryway eventually intersects with another hall (think a crosswalk without a crossing guard or those mirrors with distorted images where objects may be closer than they appear) from the clubhouse to the trainer’s room and weight room, both areas that were off-limits to the media. And it’s at that intersection that the fates of a ballplayer nearing a milestone once thought impassable and a sportswriter doggedly following his marching orders nearly collided - quite literally.

Hugging the right side of the passageway, my attention was briefly diverted to a couple of Ripken’s teammates, who were moving through the hall to my left toward the clubhouse. Because it was a blind corner, I hadn’t seen or heard anyone approaching from my right. But as I reached the end of the concrete wall, I was almost overtaken by someone in a white home jersey who was jogging around the corner.

We both stopped, maybe an inch apart from a full chest-to-chest collision. I looked up to apologize and found myself staring right into Cal’s baby blues, speechless at the gaffe that could have been. Ripken cocked his head and rolled his eyes - even then, he was focused only on getting onto the field - offering a forgiving smile even before I quickly tried to apologize. I tried to mutter, “Sorry,” but the words couldn’t escape my suddenly dry mouth. In true Ripken fashion, Cal stopped, looked and pivoted around me and simply bounced down the hallway toward the field - and immortality.

I was left to ponder what would have occurred if the proverbial immovable object (one-time pro wrestling trainee me) had clashed with the proverbial irresistible force (the guy at the center of “The Streak,” a solid 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs.). The best I could come up with was witness relocation from my hometown, fair punishment considering the possible transgression and possible alteration of history. The potential for disaster was there - a fall, a twisted ankle, a swollen knee. Luckily, disaster was averted.

Over the years, I’ve had many memorable encounters with The Iron Man, but that may be one I’ll never forget. Of course, Ripken tied and then broke Gehrig’s mark - that whole thing about sitting out 2,131 was nothing more than well-intentioned poppycock. The above photo from the Orioles’ archives is an iconic image burned into our collective memories. A city and a sport celebrated him, even though Ripken insisted he was doing nothing more than going to work every day to do the best job he could, and his workmanlike persona was credited with helping save the national pastime after its embarrassing 1994 labor strife.

Tonight, Ripken becomes the fifth of the O’s six Baseball Hall of Famers to have a statue unveiled in Legends Park. The Iron Man will be forever cast in bronze, joining Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray (with Brooks Robinson to come Sept. 29). That’s some pretty heady company, and an honor well-deserved.

Photos used in the Flashback feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.

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