On Sept. 6, 1995, the night that Lou Gehrig's all-time record for consecutive games played was broken, 27-year-old Mike Shildt watched as the numbers on the warehouse behind right field were changed from 2,130 to 2,131 when the game became official in the fifth inning.
Shildt was one of the 46,272 fans in the crowd while Cal Ripken Jr. took a victory lap celebrating the achievement. He watched as Ripken ran out of the dugout and around the warning track at Camden Yards in a complete circle, shaking hands with fans along the first-base line, in right field, center field, left field and then along the third-base line and behind the plate.
As the game resumed in the sixth inning, Shildt, who was also at the game the night before when Ripken tied the record, stood next to his college friend Jeff Fox just to the right of home plate. The Angels settled back into the batter's box. The third batter of that inning, Tim Salmon, popped a foul ball back over the plate, into the crowd -- and Shildt's hands.
The foul ball still sits on Shildt's mantle, tucked into a case and with Ripken's signature scrawled on it.
"I was standing behind home plate behind the screen and it ricocheted off a couple things, and I was able to get it," Shildt said. "I thought that was really super cool. It's just super special, one of the treasures that I have."
The ball would be memorable anyway; it's a keepsake from a game where a seemingly impossible record was broken. Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of that record being broken.
To Shildt, it's a keepsake from a night when a role model etched his name into history.
Baseball began for Shildt with the Orioles. It was during an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium that his father, Merle, proposed to Lib, his mother. Lib worked for the Orioles' Double-A affiliate in Charlotte as the administrative assistant to general manager Frances Crockett and brought young Mike along. He started fetching foul balls, then advanced to batboy, clubbie, scoreboard attendant and anything else one might think of needing done around a clubhouse.
Crockett Park was his second home, and the coaches and ballplayers were his teachers. In 1980, then 12 years old, one of his early responsibilities each day was shining shoes and cleats. A 19-year-old Ripken was always the first to come into the clubhouse, and if Shildt was near Ripken's locker when he arrived, they would talk. After running the scoreboard for the game, Shildt hustled back to the clubhouse to bring food to the players, coaches and umpires. Shildt noticed that Ripken was always the last to leave.
The future star hit 25 home runs for the Southern League champions that year. Shildt took note of everything Ripken did, on and off the field.
"One of the things you figure out is how to stay out of the way, and I just got to observe him more than I got to know him," Shildt said. "That was really valuable, because I got to see, at an impressionable age, what it looks like for somebody that's a real dedicated professional to come in and take care of themselves. He was really focused, and it was clear -- this guy's got a plan for what and why he's doing it."
Ripken was promoted to Triple-A in 1981 and then played his first full season with the big league club in '82, when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Shildt continued working, and learning, in the Charlotte O's clubhouse.
In the fall of 1983, Shildt was in Baltimore after his aunt Becky died. With Shildt being so young and an only child, his mom set up for him to go see the Orioles' batting practice before the AL Championship Series started against the White Sox. Orioles outfielder John Shelby saw Shildt in the stadium and remembered him from his days playing in Double-A. Shelby brought Shildt, now 15, into the clubhouse. Wide-eyed and taking in everything he saw, Shildt said hello to some of the players he knew from Charlotte and noticed Ripken -- who was about to be named the AL MVP that year -- at his locker doing an interview.
"I wasn't going to bother anyone in that environment," Shildt remembers. "I had never been in a big league clubhouse before, and I hadn't seen him in three years. He's standing kind of close to the door, and I'm walking by and he stops and puts his big hand on my chest and tells me to wait while he's finishing up his interview. And he turns and says, 'Mike, how are you doing? Good to see you.' I'm like, 'Wow, good to see you, too.'"
Ripken introduced Shildt to Jon Miller, then the radio play-by-play man for the Orioles and now with the Giants, before noticing that Shildt had gotten taller in the three years since he'd seen him.
"Cal said, 'I see you've grown into your feet,'" Shildt said. "I was a smaller guy, just a little kid, and my feet were bigger than I was. I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm getting there,' and then probably said a bunch of dumb things. But I remember it however many years later. He took a time to remember me and talk to me and intentionally went out of his way to say hello."
The Orioles went on to win the World Series that year, and Ripken kept on playing. Shildt followed Ripken's career as he grew into his own career -- scout, coach and now manager for the Cardinals. Shildt met Ripken again in the 2000 when the 1980 Charlotte team reunited to celebrate its championship. That's when Ripken signed the foul ball from his record-breaking night.
"That's one of the most impressive feats in the history of all of sports for just so many reasons, because you have to perform well to do it, which he obviously did," Shildt said. "The amount of effort that goes into a Major League game every day -- I gotta think that he wasn't feeling great every day. He answered the bell. He played and got after it. The dedication to his craft and the love of the competition is just really, really impressive."
Shildt's time in the Orioles' farm system was the time of "Oriole Way," when fundamentals were indoctrinated into the entire organization. The farm system produced future stars and the Major League club produced winning seasons. Ripken was representative of it in the way he was first to arrive and habitually last to leave, the way he studied and played the game. A young Shildt observed, tucking away all he learned.
Shildt entered the Cardinals' organization in 2003, and from '04-07, he began every year as a scout before coaching for a Short Season club. In '07, John Mozeliak took over as general manager and emphasized an organization rooted in development. Fundamentals throughout the organization were going to be key to that. Shildt's first year running Minor League Spring Training was in '08, also George Kissell's last spring. For generations, Kissell had been the keeper of the Cardinals Way. He set the tone for who the Cardinals want to be as an organization.
Fundamentals. Accountability. Structure. Strong development.
All familiar to Shildt.
"I grew up in [the Orioles'] organization for eight years," Shildt, who wears No. 8 now in part because of Ripken, said. "You're seeing the guys come through and go to the big leagues, but you're also seeing how the roving instructors work, the managers, the coaches, and you just see the attention to details and the fundamentals. It was very emphasized. They just had continuity.
"And I started getting into the Cardinals, and of course you had Mr. Kissell and Mark DeJohn and Gaylen Pitts and just a long list of longtime Cardinal instructors. You see similar qualities that the Cardinals have continued to have, and that's attention to detail and the fundamentals. And that's one of the reasons I feel like I fit right in with the organization, with St. Louis, because I believed in it and I saw it."