On September 20, 1998, the Baltimore Orioles played their last home game of the season. And third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. did something he hadn't done in 16 years: He stayed on the bench.
After playing in 2,632 straight games — a baseball record — Ripken decided to keep himself out of the Orioles' lineup. "I think the time is right," Ripken said. "I was going to take the last day of the season off in Boston, But I thought about it a long time and decided if this is going to end, let it end where it started, in Baltimore," Ripken said at the time.
In 1995, Ripken broke the record for most consecutive games played. The previous record was 2,130, which was set in 1939 by Lou Gehrig. But Ripken didn't sit once he owned the record. He kept playing. And playing. Ultimately pushing the record to 2,632 games.
At the end of the streak, the 38-year-old Ripken was the undisputed Iron Man of baseball. And when he retired in 2001 (his career line: 3,184 hits, 1,695 RBIs, and 431 homeruns) he was guaranteed a place in Cooperstown. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 with 98.53 percent of first-ballot votes, the third-highest percentage in history.
Fifteen years later, Ripken's streak remains one of the all-time great sports achievements. When he stopped by Sports Illustrated in July, he spoke to SI Kids about the end of the streak and who he thinks could challenge his place as baseball's Iron Man.
The 15th anniversary of your final game in the streak is coming up...
September 19 was my last game. September 20 was when I took a day off against the Yankees, in the end of 1998. And it’s 15 years from then.
Right. Is the record something you think about, in terms of its place in your career, or do you not really dwell on it?
No, not really. My perspective is different, even when someone asks me about being an unbreakable record, and Lou Gehrig’s record was unbreakable... Where I sit, I did it. So if I did it, you can do it, somebody can do it.
Was there a moment in your career when you thought, "This is an attainable record, I can do this?"
I guess when it got within a year, I thought this is conceivable, but I still tried to put it out of my mind and tried to keep the same exact approach that I had the whole time. And even after the record was broken, I didn’t want to change my approach. I mean, I ended up playing 500 more games before I decided to put it to rest. And those 500 more games, I played through a herniated disk in 1997 because we were good. And when you go through all those rebuilding processes, and you’re good, it’s important to get in there. In those 500 games, those two years when we were really good – 1996 and 1997 – that was the whole reason you would do it. Play out there to get to the next level.
Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to make of the streak. When I came into the big leagues as a kid, [managers] like Earl Weaver just kept writing me in the lineup, and Joel Altobelli, and then my dad was there. And then Earl again, and then Frank Robinson, and then all of the sudden you look up, they want you to play. A manager has a challenge every single day to write out a lineup. So they sit down and say, “OK, what team can I put together that will help me win?” I was one of those guys every single day, and they put my name in the lineup, so the streak happened. Then I tried to ignore the streak because it wasn’t what I set out to do. It was just part of being a baseball player. And I guess right around 2000 games, when everyone really started to examine it, and everybody started to turn positive, all my critics turned to my side, and it was the most meaningful thing that had ever happened in baseball. Then there was more meaning from it.
Do you think someone else playing now that maybe has the potential to be the next Iron Man?
Well to me, it’s an approach. My thought was that my job was to come to the ballpark ready to play to meet the challenges of today, and if the manager chose me then I played. It wasn’t my job to make it out of the lineup. So when I look around, the hardest part about playing everyday is to figure out, first, that you can do it physically, so if you do it once, and you have a good month of September, then you prove that physically you can endure a season. And then it’s just the mental part, which is the hardest part, letting go of the bad and moving forward and trying to meet that challenge the next day.
It’s cool, though, when you’re thinking about players. Adam Jones, with the Orioles now, he tells me when I see him, “I’m coming after your streak.” And I kind of laugh internally, and I saw him the other day and I said, “Hey, you DH’ed a few games, so you can’t do it now.” But what it tells me, when I listen to him, is he plays a big role in the Orioles, he’s a centerfielder, he’s in the middle of the lineup, and it’s important for him to be in the lineup, and he feels that responsibility. Which is really cool, and that’s really all that it is. You don’t have to have a streak to actually prove that. But he knows he’s an everyday player, he’s a gamer, and he wants to be in there because he knows his importance.
I’ve never talked to Prince Fielder about this, but watching Prince Fielder play, I love it that it’s a matter of fact, it’s a matter of knowledge that he’s playing today. He’s the heart and soul of [the Tigers]. He sits in there, he understands why he’s important offensively, but defensively he provides a lot of stability over at first base, and the team feeds off of that. And he has a streak — I think he’s played three seasons now without missing a game — but I love that sort of approach and attitude. And you don’t have to play 162 to have that. You’re an everyday guy, you understand the importance if you need a break mentally, or an injury for a little bit, but the guys that play and grind it out and they play all the time and the team relies on them, I love it when the player recognizes that.
Photo: Baltimore Orioles Cal Ripken Jr. (8) victorious, on field after breaking Lou Gehrig's 2130 game record during game vs California Angels (John Iacono/Sports Illustrated)