Fitting finish to a record for the ages Commentary: Ripken's simple desire to play grew into complex streak that hid the fact he was a Hall of Famer without it.

September 21, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

Mark down the number -- 2,632. No one will ever play that many consecutive games again. No one will even try.

Lou Gehrig's monument at Yankee Stadium says his "amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time."

Cal Ripken reduced forever to 56 years. And he turned 16 1/2 years into forever.

The Streak began as a simple reflection of Ripken's desire to play and help the Orioles win.

It evolved into a saving grace for his sport and an object lesson for his country.

Ultimately, it grew bigger than the man, bigger than his team, bigger than his sport -- so big that no one knew how to make it end.

Ripken, 38, finally found a way last night, bringing The Streak to a proper and graceful conclusion by sitting out the Orioles' final home game of 1998.

The Orioles were on the verge of elimination. Third base prospect Ryan Minor was waiting. Ripken knew that if he didn't act, the team might act for him in '99.

The time had come.

By ending The Streak last night, Ripken gave the team one issue fewer to address in what is certain to be a tumultuous off-season.

The Orioles need to retool. They can move Ripken to first if they acquire another third baseman. Or, they could keep him at third and work in another player, possibly Willis Otanez, at that position.

It has been more than three years since Ripken passed Gehrig. Mark McGwire took days off while chasing Roger Maris. There was simply no logical reason for The Streak to continue, other than The Streak itself.

So now the number is frozen -- 2,632.

The Streak began on May 30, 1982, back when the Orioles played at Memorial Stadium, before the rise of all-sports radio, all-sports television, the Internet.

It spanned five presidential terms. It survived three Orioles owners, eight managers and countless aches and pains. It started early in the Me Decade and lasted almost until the new millennium.

And now it is done.

Fifty years from now, few will recall the paradox of The Streak, how it combined elements of selfishness and selflessness.

Few will recall the debates that erupted when Ripken stopped hitting or appeared to be hurt.

Few will even remember that he would have been a Hall of Famer based on his playing achievements alone.

What people will remember is the physical stamina, mental strength and incredible fortune it took for one man to play so many consecutive games.

The warm standing ovation he received from the fans, the Orioles and the New York Yankees last night.

And, of course, Sept. 6, 1995.

The night Ripken broke Gehrig's record at Camden Yards will endure as one of the most special moments in sports history.

McGwire produced a similar rush when he hit No. 62 in St. Louis, but he held the home run record for just 116 hours before Sammy Sosa tied him with an equally magical performance at Wrigley Field.

For all anyone knows, the final week of Home Run Derby '98 might provide even more dramatic memories, create even more lasting images.

Ripken's moment was different. Ripken's moment was singular.

Ripken's moment touched us all.

Iron Man, Family Man, Man of the People -- Ripken was all of those things that night, just as he has been virtually his entire career.

No one signs more autographs. No one displays a stronger work ethic. After the strike of 1994 and '95, no one could have done baseball as proud.

The Streak was his destiny. The Streak is his legacy.

Was it more a triumph of will than skill? No, Ripken had to be good enough to merit his place in the lineup every day.

Was it more about individual goals than team goals? No, Ripken's managers and teammates always wanted him to play, believing he gave them the best chance to win.

Perhaps Ripken's career numbers would be better if he had taken the occasional day off. But no one knows that for sure, and how much better could his numbers be, anyway?

Like Ripken, The Streak was complex, not easily categorized. Ripken never imagined such a positive endeavor creating negative fallout. Playing every day was, to quote the title of his autobiography, "The Only Way I Know."

If only it were that simple.

By the end, his quest seemed pointless, even damaging.

Otanez broke his wrist when the Orioles tried him in right field, protecting The Streak. Minor started at first base Friday rather than third, his natural position.

Ripken's unique status helped create a double standard that divided the clubhouse, giving the appearance that his interests came before the team's. And, most significant, his skills had started to decline.

Ripken could not control his organization's decisions or his teammates' jealousies. He could control his playing time, or so it was thought. It might be accurate to say that his playing time came to control him.

He was afraid of the unknown -- a day off was the one thing for which this preparation freak couldn't prepare. That's why ending The Streak now makes such sense. Ripken can spend the winter formulating his approach for next season.

He brought honor to his team, his sport, his city. He became a role model for millions. And somewhere along the line, a boy's simple desire to play evolved into a man's stubborn desire to protect what he had.

L That made Ripken human and in a sense, even more remarkable.

How could a mere mortal have kept going for so long?

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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