In last lap, let Ripken fun begin

June 27, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TORONTO -- Paul Molitor knew last night amounted to Opening Day in Cal Ripken's final 162-game march to Lou Gehrig. And he can't wait for July 30, when Toronto visits Camden Yards with Ripken expected to play in his 2,000th consecutive game.

"I checked the date the last time we were in Baltimore," Molitor said before last night's 7-1 loss to the Orioles. "I want to be there for that. It's not the record, but it's definitely a milestone on the way."

The countdown is on, and Molitor, a 17-year veteran, is as excited as any 17-year-old fan. Barring a strike, Ripken would tie Gehrig's record in Game No. 71 next season, and break it in Game No. 72.

The controversy is over.

Let the celebration begin.

Even if Ripken doesn't reach Gehrig, his streak will be remembered as one of the most remarkable feats in baseball history -- and the debate over the damage to his career will be reduced to so much background noise.

Ripken has won two Most Valuable Player awards during the streak. Become the all-time home run leader at shortstop. Led the majors in extra-base hits the past 12 years. Set a major-league record for fewest errors in a season at his position.

"There are certain things that amaze you, and certain things that don't," Toronto's Joe Carter said. "This is one that amazes you. I just couldn't fathom playing that many games in a row."

Molitor and Carter, the Blue Jays' two biggest stars, view the streak from opposite perspectives. Molitor has been on the disabled list 12 times in his career. Carter is so durable, he once had the second longest streak behind Ripken -- 507 games.

Florida's Jeff Conine currently owns the second longest streak -- a paltry 236 games, or 12 percent of Ripken's 1,969. Heck, Ripken can't stop now, knowing that Conine could catch him in the year 2005.

Seriously, how many of us thought Ripken would get this far? Entering this season, a total of 3,072 players had gone on the disabled list during his streak. The other 27 major-league clubs had used 441 different shortstops.

"I didn't think it was feasible that a guy could approach this record in today's era of travel and artificial turf," Molitor said. "It's been an amazing climb toward an amazing record -- especially at time when players find more ways to come out of a lineup than you can imagine."

Molitor, 37, has an even greater appreciation of Ripken, considering the number of injuries he sustained early in his career. He'd be a certain Hall of Famer if he hadn't missed the equivalent of more than 3 1/2 seasons -- 577 games.

His longest consecutive-games streak? "I'm almost embarrassed to say," Molitor said, laughing. "Maybe between 200 and 250. Probably 200, I would guess. Last year was the first year I could have physically played every game -- and to get to that point, it took me 17 years."

And a full-time job as a designated hitter. Molitor wound up playing in 160 games last season, matching his career high. Manager Cito Gaston gave him a day off at the end of a West Coast trip, and another after Toronto clinched the AL East title.

This season, Molitor is the only Blue Jay to appear in all 72 games. Carter, meanwhile, has averaged 157 games the past nine years. He opened the season playing with a broken thumb, and the only three games he has missed were due to vertigo.

His 507-game streak ended in the third game of the 1992 season. Carter had a sore back, and the Blue Jays were scheduled for a day game in Detroit. Carter said he could have played, if he had more time to recuperate, if the game had been at night.

"I was aware of it," he said. "It's something you take pride in. I hated like heck to miss the one game. But I realized I could not help the team. And if I can't help my team, I'm not going to play."

Ripken has always used the same argument, but even when he's not hitting well, he helps the Orioles with his defense. He's mentally tough. He's physically tough. "And," Molitor joked, "his lack of speed hasn't hurt him, either."

The best thing about this final 162-game lap is that Ripken is enjoying one of his best seasons, again silencing those critics who believe the streak detracts from his play. He's batting .342 with men in scoring position. He's on a pace to finish with 20 homers and 113 RBIs.

Every time he takes the field, it's one more step toward Gehrig, one more step toward history. Yet, the sight of Ripken at shortstop has become so familiar, such a part of the game's fabric, the players almost take it for granted.

"I don't think we're in awe of it now," Carter said. "We're so used to it, we look at it as something that is going to happen. If you look at the box score, you know you're going to see Ripken's name, probably for the whole game."

The controversy is over.

Let the celebration begin.

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