If the true measure of an athlete's stature is the respect he commands from his peers, then Cal Ripken is being paid the supreme compliment.
In this, the climactic year of The Streak, rival players are no different than hundreds of thousands of fans around the country. They want a memento of an historical event.
Fred Tyler, the visiting team clubhouse manager for the Orioles, has been the unofficial go-between for American League players and Ripken. He's been in his current position for 12 of the 24 years he has worked for the club since breaking in as an assistant for his brother, Jim, in the home team clubhouse.
During that time, Fred has handled a lot of requests from visiting players, but nothing compares to the number he's had this year. "The only thing I can equate it to is Nolan Ryan during his last year," he said. "And even that wasn't close."
Tyler estimates that every series the Orioles have played at home he's averaged about two dozen autographed balls. "And that's really only the overflow -- it's much more than that when we're on the road."
It's when the Orioles visit the other AL cities that Ripken fields his heaviest autograph loads from other players. Which means that Tyler, who works the Orioles' clubhouse when the team is on the road, started a hectic 10-day road trip yesterday.
Oakland, Seattle and California are the Orioles' last stops before Ripken could be in position to break Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games on Sept. 6. It will be the last chance for players on those teams to secure their keepsakes.
"The requests started right away, as soon as the season began," said Tyler. Shortly thereafter Ripken designed a game plan very similar to the one he's used with the fans, remaining after selected games to sign autographs.
"I get the balls and write down the names of the players -- and he signs them the last day of a series," said Tyler. "It's something that just evolved as the season went on. It's the easiest way, and I think Cal figures it's the best way to avoid forgetting somebody.
"He's a very conscientious guy and he's been very gracious about it. You can tell this is something these guys [the players] will treasure. Each one has a personal message."
As the countdown gets closer to the magic date, Tyler admits the significance is becoming more apparent to him. "I think we've kind of taken it for granted -- he's always there," said Tyler. "But now, with it being so close, it really starts to hit home, and when we get back home I'm sure it will pick up even more."
As for own thoughts about the streak, Tyler said, "He's always been Cal, the same person I've known since he started. That's the one thing I'll always remember about this."