The date was September 6, 1995. Many people call it the day that Cal Ripken Jr. saved baseball. I call it something else. To me, it is simply "The Day."
Cal was more than a hometown hero in Baltimore. He came from a pure baseball family. His dad was a baseball guy through and through who coached the Orioles, managed them briefly, and raised his two sons in "The Ripken Way" both on the field and off. The Ripken Way needs no explanation in Baltimore. You do what you have to do, and you do it every day no matter how you feel. Under Senior's tutelage, Cal Jr. and his brother Billy became one of only four brother-brother duo's on the same team in the Major Leagues when they played for the Orioles together. With 19 All-Star berths, MVP awards, Gold Gloves and the adoration of millions, Jr. was baseball in Baltimore. He epitomized American grit and Baltimore's blue collar work ethic. He showed up to work day after day no matter what was injured or ailing and on September 6th, 1995, he broke Lou Gherig's 56-year-old record for most consecutive games played with 2,131. I was there.
It was a perfect autumn day that started out like any other in early September in Maryland. Summer's humidity was becoming a memory, and the remaining warm air of the year felt good and crisp. The leaves were just hinting at their coming change, with some scarlet and gold flecks beginning to appear on some of the foliage. As my wife and I got going that day, married barely a year and four months at that point, we shared a great anticipation. We knew that history was going to be made that day and we were going to be a part of it. This day was not just about Cal Jr. and his coronation as the Iron Man. For me, it was something special for a different reason.
My only brother Abbey (Abdul III) died of cancer in September of 1998, ten years after doctors had given him a year to live. My father Abdul also died of cancer, his demise coming six years later in 2004. There were very few times that the three of us would spend the day together, and I can't name a single "teachable moment" with my dad dishing out pearls of wisdom to his sons. There were no days of playing catch in the backyard in the Ali household. Well, except for that day my dad threw my stereo at my brother, which was a day I'd love to forget. I can remember a few times working together, with both my brother and father being painters and owning separate small businesses because they couldn't see eye to eye. Those times were never fun and I usually couldn't wait for those days to end. My father and brother saw life differently. My brother had been a rabble rouser in his early years, but had settled into a life of service to others. I can't remember a day with him when he wasn't dropping off food for an elderly person or taking toys to the kids down the street or giving some homeless person a few bucks and praying with them. He was my hero. I looked up to him like I can only imagine Billy must have looked up to Cal Jr. I mimicked his every move, from the way he swaggered in his walk, to the way he slapped his knee when something was really funny. He loved westerns and Clint Eastwood and Mom's cream pie, and when he passed away, Mom began making those cream pies on my birthday just has she had done for him. Had he not been a painter, a job I hated but spent a few summers doing just to be with him, I probably would have followed in his footsteps in business too. To me, Abbey was the Iron Man, and he lived by the motto of Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight." I adopted that too, but he seemed to be much better at living it out than me. My dad lived by the motto of "kick ass and take names," and my earliest memories are of him doing just that in our household and in business. People called him Mr. Ali, but I still don't know if that was out of fear or respect. After his cancer diagnoses, to his credit he made right with the world and made peace with us. All the years of pain were wiped away and when he died, it was alright because we knew he had given his life to the Lord in his last years and he was going to a better place. I loved my brother and my dad. I never had a fight with my brother. Ever. There were many times when I was young that I wished I could kick my father's ass, but was too afraid of the repercussions. When I got older and knew that I could, there was only sadness for him and a longing to have a closer relationship. There were not many great days with my father, but there was one day that made it all Ok.
"The Day" was September 6, 1995. On that day, as Jane and I got ready to go to the ball park, my dad and my brother arrived. We had scored four seats and we were all giddy with excitement about being there to watch Cal Jr. make history. When my dad arrived, he seemed unusually happy. Turns out, he was a much bigger Ripken fan than I ever knew. He was joking without sarcasm (a rarity), he was very complimentary of Jane and he was very interested in all things having to do with my brother and I. When we got to Camden Yards and found our seats in the mezzanine behind home plate, we were thrilled with the view and consumed by the tense thrill in the air. This was a day that we'd see the impossible become possible. In a day when players took days off for the slightest ailment, for fear of getting injured and losing a fat paycheck, Cal was about to break a mammoth record that had stood for more than a half century. He played brilliantly, even hitting a magical homerun worthy of a Hollywood highlight reel. When the game became official, perfect worlds collided as my father, my brother, my wife and I participated gleefully in the most incredible moment I've ever experienced in sports. We stood side by side and arm in arm cheering with thousands of others for 22 straight minutes as Baltimore showed its' love and respect for Cal Ripken Jr. His teammates encouraged the humble Cal to take a victory lap which is forever etched in my mind. I can replay that moment a thousand times and not get tired of it. I can remember the sounds and smells of the park and feelings of that day at Camden Yards as if I was still there and it was still then. The Day was a tale of two fathers and their two sons. Cal beating the record and Abbey beating cancer. Pundits thought Cal would have succumbed to one of numerous injuries in his career and the doctors by that time were a long way off in their prediction of my brother's demise. They were both Iron Men. That day there were also two proud dads. And there were two younger brothers who were both in heaven on earth. Happy Father's Day dad. I love you and I'll always cherish "The Day." Save me a seat in the upper deck and I'll see you and Abbey there one day.
To anyone that doesn't have the best relationship with their dad, or their son or daughter, don't ever give up. Your day is coming. Trust in the Lord.
(Abdul, A.J. and Abbey in photo below taken by Jane at our house September 6, 1995, just before going to Camden Yards)